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Monday, March 20, 2006

Oakland A's Catch City Off Guard, Threaten To Move to Fremont

This was in today's Oakland Tribune, but I've never believed the A's were serious about Oakland; just giving them enough time to prove they were kind of interested, while looking elsewhere at the same time. I said it last year, that A's Owner Lewis Wolfe's timetable for development was totally unrealistic and called his bluff. I was right.

A's scout county for new ballpark
Baseball team owner gives up on an Oakland site; Fremont is becoming an attractive option
By Paul T. Rosynsky and Chris De Benedetti, STAFF WRITERS

OAKLAND -- The Oakland Athletics' quest for a new ballpark appears to be pointing toward Fremont because team owner Lewis Wolff has concluded Oakland does not have the space, time or money to help him build one.

The team no longer considers Oakland a top-priority location for a new ballpark and is looking at other sites throughout Alameda County, Wolff said in an interview last week.

"We've spent most of our time focused on Oakland; now the next goal is to stay in Alameda County," he said. "We haven't ruled out any place, but Oakland is difficult because it has lots of priorities that are very important to the community beyond sports."

Although Wolff refused to name a specific city, the owner said the team is scouting Alameda County locations between Fremont and Oakland that are close to a freeway and the BART line.

Wolff also said he needs enough space for both a ballpark and a ballpark village with housing and retail opportunities.
It remains unclear exactly how seriously the A's are considering Fremont, but Wolff has met with city officials and discussed potential sites.

"Fremont is standing at the plate, and someone is getting ready to smash one out of the park," said Alameda County Supervisor Scott Haggerty, a longtime proponent of having the team relocate to the city herepresents. "There have been meetings with Fremont, there have been meetings with the county."

Among the properties getting the most attention is a 143-acre site at Pacific Commons, just west of Interstate 880.
Fremont Mayor Bob Wasserman said talks about the site, owned by Cisco Systems, have become "serious."
"Things are falling together well," he said. "I think it works well. I think the A's think so, too."

Added Fremont City Manager Fred Diaz, "The A's are interested. We're interested."

Another site includes a parcel of land next door to the New United Motors Manufacturing Inc. plant. But both Diaz and Wasserman have said the Pacific Commons land appears to take precedence.

Wolff's determination that Oakland isn't high on his list of sites any longer caught Oakland city leaders by surprise.
"He has not told us anything like that," said Oakland City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente. "Until we are told something different, we are going to continue working. But Mr. Wolff is right, we have many other things on the front plate."
Among those are a rising crime rate, beleaguered public schools and a hot mayoral race in which De La Fuente, the city's lead negotiator in the baseball talks, is a candidate.

"It is very difficult. With all these campaigns going on, our plates are so full," said Alameda County Supervisor Gail Steele, a member of the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Authority.

"Politics takes focus away," said Oakland City Councilmember Larry Reid (Elmhurst-East Oakland). "Also, elected officials on both the county side and the city side are gun-shy given the difficulties we have had with sports franchises in the past."

Wolff has spent more than three years scouting potential ballpark sites in Oakland, first as the team's vice president for venue development and later as its owner.

Last year he proposed building a ballpark next door to the McAfee Coliseum, on land with numerous private owners. It was a plan that would have created an East Oakland neighborhood anchored by the ballpark.

But it ran into difficulties the moment it was announced.

Property owners didn't want to move, and neither Wolff nor the city wanted to use eminent domain to force them out.
"That was something, in my opinion, that would have been very dramatic," Wolff said. "It was an A in planning and an F in implementation."

With other potential sites in the city either not meeting Wolff's requirements or targeted for city projects, Wolff said he has no choice but to expand the search outside of Oakland.

"All the alternatives that were available had huge challenges, too," Wolff said. "We've all tried, and it is very difficult. ... Look around, Oakland is a very built-up community."
In contrast to Oakland, Fremont has several large plots of land available for a ballpark. And those properties seem to fit the team's criteria.

Interstates 880 and 680 both run through Fremont, and BART has a station there and plans for another one.

Representatives from Cisco refused to say whether they have had discussions with the team about selling the Pacific Commons site.

Wolff refused to pinpoint locations but said Fremont does fit his criteria for a location close to the freeway and BART.
It also is close to San Jose, which has spent the last decade clamoring for a baseball team. San Jose also has considerable business ties that could help support the team.

But the South Bay is San Francisco Giants territory, and under baseball rules, Wolff would have to pay a handsome sum to the cross-bay rivals if he chose to relocate there.

Even so, San Jose city officials are working on a proposal to land a ballpark on a downtown site near HP Pavilion.

Harry Mavrogenes, San Jose's executive director of redevelopment, said the city recently approved spending more than $11 million to buy two parcels within the site.

San Jose also has spent $5.6 million to acquire other land connected to the site.

"We're peeling away about one year's worth of process," Mavrogenes said. "We're getting the stage ready in case a decision is made (by the A's) in our direction."

By moving to Fremont instead, Wolff could take advantage of Silicon Valley wealth without breaking Major League Baseball rules, which separate the country into regions for each team.

Such a move also would raise questions about what the team will be called.

Wolff would not discuss a possible name change last week, saying it was too early to do so. But he did indicate the Golden State Warriors' name is a plus because it doesn't identify a city.

"It is a business and we have to attract our market," Wolff said.

He also defended the A's decision to seek sites outside of Oakland, saying the community should be glad the team is not searching outside Alameda County.

And he said he has done everything he can to ensure taxpayers are not left paying for an investment that will benefit a private business.

"Instead of looking outside the Bay Area or outside the state of California, we decided to focus this season on trying to stay in our market," Wolff said. "I don't know of any other ownership that does a better job, that tries to work in the parameters that we have.

"We are not looking for a bond issue, we are not looking for tax increment financing," he said.
That's good news, should Fremont attract the team.

Diaz said the city does not have money to give to a professional team. "The city's fiscal situation is currently a difficult one," he said.

Haggerty said that shouldn't be a deterrent.

He said a deal could be worked out in which Wolff builds a stadium in Fremont and gets about 75 acres of county-owned land in Dublin. There, the hotel developer could build the housing complex he said is needed to pay for the stadium.

"It's an innovative way to fund a stadium," Haggerty said. "It's essentially transferring land in Dublin to Fremont."

While Wolff has said in the past he needs a firm plan in place by early April, he backed off that timeline last week. However, Wolff said, something needs to be done quickly.

"We want to win and we want the revenues that will allow us to keep our players," Wolff said. "That is our responsibility and right now we are going to expand our visions within Alameda County."

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