Oakland A's, Mesa negotiate final deal on stadium

March 1, 2013
The Arizona Republic
Gary Nelson

Mesa has reached a final agreement for the Oakland Athletics to return their spring training operations to the city beginning in 2015.

The deal is expected to receive approval Monday from the City Council, which was briefed during Thursday’s study session.

That meeting brought another piece of baseball news to Mesa: The Arizona Sports and Tourism Authority this week approved an $8.2 million allocation for renovating Hohokam Stadium to accommodate the A’s.

Oakland trained in Mesa for 10 years beginning in 1969 before moving to Scottsdale and then to Phoenix.

Hohokam and Fitch Park, a few blocks south of the stadium, currently serve the Chicago Cubs who will move next year to a new stadium near Loops 101 and 202.

Mesa built the current stadium for the Cubs 16 years ago, spending $28 million in the process.

But by 2009, the Cubs were considering other spring training options. Florida business interests promised to build the team a stadium in Naples, Fla., with enough land for a “Wrigleyville” retail and entertainment complex that would generate new revenue.

Mesa kept the Cubs by promising to spend $84million on new baseball facilities and $15million on related infrastructure in the Riverview neighborhood. City voters approved the project in 2010.

Solving the Cubs problem, however, only created another for Mesa: What to do with Hohokam and Fitch?

Cubs Ballpark 2013Apart from the multimillion-dollar investment in the facilities, Mesa estimated it would cost almost $1.5 million a year to maintain them as city parks. With lease payments from the A’s, that expense will be cut roughly in half.

Oakland was nearing the end of its lease for Phoenix Municipal Stadium and initiated talks with Mesa in late 2011.

“We had a very outstanding agreement with Phoenix and in a sense have a hard time leaving, but we’re still looking forward to the future,” said Ted Polakowski, a Mesa resident who directs Oakland’s Arizona operations.

Oakland’s tenure at the nearly 50-year-old Phoenix Muni ends in 2014, and the stadium is likely to be the next home for Arizona State University’s baseball team.

Mesa has a year to renovate Hohokam and Fitch.

There will be clubhouse upgrades to accommodate nutritional and language training. Seating at Hohokam will be reduced to make the park more intimate for the A’s, who typically draw fewer fans than the Cubs. And there will new fan amenities; among the possibilities is a bar dug into Hohokam’s outfield berm.

The total bill is pegged at about $20 million.

Mesa will cover the first $15 million. The next $5 million will be split evenly between the city and the team. Oakland picks up all costs beyond $20 million.

That means public spending for the A’s is capped at $17.5 million.

Combined with the Cubs project, Mesa has now committed to spending as much as $116.5 million on spring training facilities within the next couple of years. It plans to issue bonds for the projects this spring.

The $8.2 million from the Arizona Sports and Tourism Authority — which City Manager Chris Brady thinks will arrive in Mesa’s coffers between 2016 and 2020 — will help. But Mesa believes it can handle the costs in any event.

“We’re not relying upon some expected economic development activity to pay for these bonds,” Brady said Thursday.

That contrasts most notably with Glendale, which built a $158 million park for the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago White Sox in the so-far unfulfilled hope that nearby development would generate income to cover stadium costs.

Mesa has two financial aces in the hole:

An economic development fund that the city padded when it saved $72 million last year in a bond-refinancing deal. Brady said the fund is flush enough to cover $4.5 million a year in ballpark debt service for at least the next decade.

11,000-plus acres of Pinal County farmland that Mesa bought for its water rights in the 1980s. The city no longer needs the water.

After the Legislature balked at helping Mesa pay for the Cubs stadium in 2010, the city pledged the proceeds from future Pinal land sales toward stadium costs.

Farm Sources International, a global agricultural company whose North American headquarters are in Scottsdale, is conducting due diligence on the entire 11,000 acres in a deal that could net Mesa $135 million in lease and purchase payments over six years.

Brady thinks the sale could close less than a year from now.

The money would be used to begin early payoff of the baseball bonds and to replenish the economic development fund, which the city aims to continue using for capital projects such as facilities for five liberal-arts colleges moving into Mesa.

The Oakland deal would give Mesa a double-barreled Cactus League presence until at least the middle of the century.