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West Coast League to Milwaukie? Highly unlikely

West Coast LeagueIn one of the most improbable pitches ever, the summer-collegiate West Coast League says it would be happy to pursue public funding for a new Milwaukie (Ore.) ballpark after the Northwest League failed to meet a deadline.

The Portland suburb has been talking with the short-season circuit about a new $25-million ballpark for the 2014 season, an effort that ended when the league informed the city it could not meet a July 31, 2012 deadline for a team committing to a move for the 2014 season. And while some in Milwaukie consider that the end of discussions, we hear that’s not the same attitude on the baseball side of thing, where some owners in MiLB want to see discussions go on for a 2015 opening. The idea of a second team in Portland wasn’t daunting; the timing was, and there are at least two teams open to a move under the right conditions, we are told.

Still, that’s not stopping Milwaukie officials from considering options, including a pitch from WCL President Ken Wilson to step into the breach and replace the Northwest League team in the equation. Smart move; league presidents are charged with making good deals for their league owners, and getting into Portland would be a very good move for the summer-collegiate circuit. But it’s a total unrealstic pitch, considering a) no city has ever seen the economic sense in building a new ballpark for the West Coast League and b) a West Coast League team can’t justify the investment, as there’s no team in the circuit now drawing even 1,500 fans a game (Bend leads the attendence figures at 1,480.)

Why is this deal highly unlikely to happen? The numbers just don’t work. There are few summer-collegiate teams that do more than $900,000 in revenue annually. The entire Northwest League deal in Milwaukie was predicated on having a pro team as a tenant with pro-team revenues, generating $7.3 million annually in total economic impact. There are two summer-collegiate teams that come close to that level of impact, and they’re both in Wisconsin. Summer-collegiate ball is a growth market, but the economic model is predicated on really, really cheap rent paid on old American Legion or former minor-league ballparks.

Even if the project is scaled down to $10 million, it still makes no economic sense for Milwaukie. Very few summer-collegiate teams playing 32home games could generate the sort of economic activity to justify a $10-million expenditure; we’re talking $3 million at the most for an economically sustainable venture, where rent and associated tax revenues could begin to cover debt. The most successful summer-collegiate team, the Madison Mallards (summer collegiate; Northwoods League) spent about $2 million on ballpark upgrades last season, and the newest summer-collegiate ballpark, Kapco Park, came in at under $2 million, and that’s becase the Lakeshore Chinooks donated a million dollars to the effort. (Copeland Park, home of the highly successfui La Crosse Loggers, was built for less than a million dollars.)  It is folly to think a West Coast League team could sustain a $10-million investment from Milwaukie.

We’re guessing city officials will come to their senses and realize this when a full economic study is done — if it gets to that point, as some city council members want to drop the matter completely. The best play, if Milwaukie really wants baseball, is to continue working with the Northwest League on a team down the road. The West Coast League says it can’t place a team in Milwaukie until 2015 anyway (no existing owner is lining up to make this move), so the smart move is to continue working with the Northwest League for the future toward a 2015 opening — which means the city and the league have a year to come up with a potential relocation candidate.

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