Sea Dogs want new clubhouse, or else…
Without $1.7 million bond, Red Sox may cut ties
By Chris Busby
The Portland Sea Dogs, a minor-league affiliate of the Boston Red Sox, want Portland officials to agree to spend nearly $2 million on a new clubhouse at city-owned Hadlock Field. If the city doesn’t come up with the dough, Sea Dogs representatives say the Sox may end their affiliation with the team next year.
The Sea Dogs have said a larger, cushier clubhouse is “a critical component” of the Red Sox’ willingness to maintain the affiliation, said City Councilor Jim Cohen, chairman of the Council’s Finance Committee.
Sea Dogs president and general manager Charlie Eshbach declined to comment on the team’s agreement with the Sox and other aspects of the clubhouse deal pending further discussions with the city and the Boston team.
As crafted so far, the Dogs’ request entails the city borrowing $1.7 million through a 20-year bond (with interest, the total amount of public money involved approaches $2 million). In exchange, the Sea Dogs would increase their rent payments to the city to offset some of the borrowing cost. The team would also assume greater responsibility for field maintenance and equipment, and extend their lease at Hadlock through 2013, with five-year renewal options running through 2028.
The Sea Dogs’ affiliation with the Sox began in 2002, after nine years with the Florida Marlins. In 2004, the Sox announced their intention to continue the affiliation for four more years. They may be more willing to continue those ties after 2008 if the new clubhouse is built, but league rules stipulate that these affiliations can only be made for four-year terms.
“The Red Sox affiliation is actively pursued by many other communities,” said Cohen. “Other cities are throwing lots of money at sports, and we’ve thrown less.”
The bond request comes during a difficult time. The City Council is just beginning deliberations on the city budget, and there isn’t much extra cash to throw around – if any. School officials are already up in arms over the prospect of having to fire teachers and cut programs to save money this year. Neighborhood groups and civic organizations are clamoring for funding, and a significant property tax increase is on the horizon if municipal services are not cut instead.
The city has a self-imposed borrowing cap of $10 million per year. Dedicating $1.7 million of that $10 million for a new clubhouse “means there are other types of projects that won’t get bonded this year,” said Cohen. “There’s no question about that.”
Public projects that could be delayed should the city decide to borrow money for the clubhouse include street and sidewalk maintenance projects and improvements for public parks. City Manager Joe Gray crafts the annual bond budget and submits it to the Council for approval. Gray has not yet released this year’s borrowing plan, and did not return a call seeking comment.
City government watchdog Steven Scharf reacted strongly to the Sea Dogs’ proposal. “You don’t need to be building clubhouses for baseball teams when our kids aren’t getting their education,” he said, in reference to the school budget cuts being proposed.
“If the Red Sox are so conceited that they must have the best [clubhouse] and refuse to pay for it, let them leave,” he continued. “Portland shouldn’t pick up the cost of their team’s massage facilities when our kids don’t have proper teachers. We’ve got other priorities in this town.”
City Councilor Dave Marshall, whose district includes Hadlock Field, deferred comment at this early stage of the budget process, but expressed some skepticism about the clubhouse idea. “Is this one of our top priorities, or do we want to keep the tax rate down?,” said Marshall, who is also a member of the Finance Committee. The committee has not voted on the matter yet.
The clubhouse bond “is going to have to take its place with all the other items being proposed,” said City Councilor Cheryl Leeman. “The city will have to set a list of priorities.”
The team’s current clubhouse is in the city-owned Portland Exposition Building next to Hadlock Field. If the Dogs move into a new clubhouse under the right field stands, as their plan envisions, the city might receive more federal money earmarked for gender-equality in high school sports. The so-called Title IX funding could be increased if the city is able to provide more space for female athletes at the Expo, officials said, but the details of this are still hazy.
After balancing rent and expenses, the city subsidizes the Sea Dogs to the tune of between $150,000 and $200,000 per year. That annual public subsidy could grow to over $300,000 per year by 2028, according to figures associated with the clubhouse plan and restructured lease agreement.
Cohen said he’s inclined to support the bond request, which may come before the full Council early next month.
“Beyond the numbers, what we as stewards of the city need to consider is the importance of the Sea Dogs and the Red Sox affiliation to the entire community,” said Cohen. “It’s an important economic driver to the Portland community. The loss of that kind of driver would have costly implications.”