Hops, city of Hillsboro, working on Ron Tonkin Field expansion
A substantial expansion of Ron Tonkin Field could be in the works, under a new proposal from the city of Hillsboro and the Hillsboro Hops baseball team.
The Hops need to meet new home field facility standards required by Major League Baseball after the league restructured its minor leagues earlier this year. But team and city officials are collaborating on a plan to design and finance an expansion of the field that goes far beyond newly required facility standards.
The MLB restructuring doubled the number of games the Hops play in a season, moving the franchise from a short season Low-A team to a High-A level.
Likewise, city officials have big plans for Ron Tonkin Field, proposing a year-round outdoor event and entertainment destination that could boost economic activity for Hillsboro and the region.
"Our philosophy is that the best facilities get the best events, so that's another motivating factor for building something that can compete for regional and national events," Hops President K.L. Wombacher said in an interview with the News Times. "We want those events to come here instead of Scottsdale or San Diego or wherever."
During a Hillsboro City Council work session Nov. 16, City Manager Robby Hammond said the city government and the team share a common priority to expand Ron Tonkin Field in a way that brings in economic and entertainment benefits outside of baseball.
"For so long, the city of Hillsboro has talked about bringing large-scale concerts and events to the community because right now you can't really find them west of Portland," Hammond said. "This is an opportunity for us to do that."
The expansion must be financially sustainable, said Rahim Harji, assistant city manager, adding that it needs to be and a "win-win" for the community.
The Hops organization has pledged to work with the city government to mitigate potential losses during the expansion and extended Hops season.
While a price tag for the expansion is far from final, city officials are proposing to finance $40 million of the expansion by issuing bonds. Depending on project designs, the expansion could cost substantially more.
Suzanne Linneen, the city's finance director, said staff are looking at other financing options using county and/or state funds as well as grants.
Hillsboro city councilors were generally in favor of the proposal, expressing support for the Hops and agreeing that the expansion could produce benefits for the wider community.
City Councilor Anthony Martin asked for details about what kinds of amenities or additions to the facility the $40 million in city financing would pay for.
Harji said specifics about what the expansion will bring have yet to be determined, but Wombacher said the bulk of the baseball-related upgrades would revolve around what MLB has termed "player health and wellness."
While they're still in the planning process, Wombacher mentioned upgraded and additional locker facilities, on-site weight training upgrades, eating spaces for players, female dressing rooms, and enhanced field lighting as things on the "list."
"Part of our philosophy is that we don't want to just meet the minimums, we want to have the best player development experience in the country if we can," the Hops president said. "We want to create a compelling experience for players and a compelling reason for the Diamondbacks to send their best players to Hillsboro."
He added that facility improvements with additional revenue-producing elements have been on the team's mind for some time now, but with the required upgrades entering the equation, Wombacher believes the time is now to take the stadium and area to another level.
"(The MLB upgrades) opened up a bigger conversation regarding the opportunities within our market, and what do we want Hillsboro and Washington County to be," he said. "We feel there's a huge demand for really cool outdoor events, and the questions then becomes 'where can you put them?' This is a great opportunity play."
Without providing a number, Harji said preliminary cost estimates of the MLB-required facility standards are less than $40 million.
"Our estimates are still early," Harji said, adding that the city plans to hire a consultant to work on preliminary designs. "I think part of the balance of what will be above the minimum requirements within that $40 million is stuff we have to figure out now during the design process."
If the $40 million cost proves accurate, Linneen the city's finance director, said the Hops would be responsible for paying back $30 million of the bonds. The team would use its rental payments for the city-owned facility to service the debt, she said.
The other $10 million would be covered with public funds, Linneen said.
The city government would pay for that contribution using revenue from its Transient Lodging Tax, which adds a 3% tax for guests staying in hotels and other temporary rentals within the city. According to state law, 70% of that tax revenue must be used for tourism promotion or related facilities such as Ron Tonkin Field.
For the past several years, Hillsboro has fulfilled that requirement by contributing its Transient Lodging Tax revenue — about $8 million total — to the construction of Washington County's Wingspan Event & Conference Center, which was completed in 2020.
Linneen said having large tourism-related projects is useful because it makes meeting such tax revenue requirements easier. She added that the City Council will need to approve an extension of the city's Transient Lodging Tax in 2026, when its 10-year period expires.
Hillsboro officials said they plan to competitively select a contractor who will be integrated into the design phase of the project instead of the typical process of finalizing designs and then bidding the project to prospective contractors. Involving a contractor in the design phase will help officials make the project scalable to meet their goals, officials said.
Wombacher said that terms have yet to be negotiated regarding potential revenue from the site in the wake of the improvements, but with the team taking on the bulk of the debt, he sees a scenario in which they too benefit from the revenue generated from it.
"Our goal is to create a more self-sustaining venue, so the revenues cover the debt service and cover the operational expenses," he said. "If we're going to bear the majority of the debt service and take on a lot of the maintenance and capital improvements, then we would need the revenue to support us."
City Councilor Kyle Allen said a planned economic analysis of the project will be important to show the scale of the benefits to the community.
"There will be scrutiny from the public that don't like seeing tax dollars being spent in this way, regardless of whether it's (Transient Lodging Tax) or anything else," Allen said.
In voicing his support for the project, Allen said, "I want us to be ambitious about it."
As does Wombacher and the Hops organization.
"We want to stay here long-term and the ballpark is great," Wombacher said. "It's a great venue, but when you look into the future there was going to be a lot of deficiencies there. We want to kind of future-proof our organization and our venue to make it sustainable long-term."
The City Council will need to vote to approve any project financing before moving forward, officials said.
Wade Evanson contributed to this story.
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