Hillsboro celebrates ground-breaking of new baseball stadium

Hillsboro celebrates ground-breaking of new baseball stadium
Photo by B. Scott Anderson, KATU.com.

HILLSBORO, Ore. -- It might have been cloudy and drizzling Friday afternoon in Hillsboro, but for the few hundred people who showed up to the Gordon Faber Recreation Complex, all they could see were the sunny skies of the future.

That's because those hundreds were out to celebrate the ground-breaking of the new Single A baseball team that will begin play in June of 2013. Hillsboro is the new home of the team formerly known as the Yakima Bears, a Single A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks.

"This is an exciting day," said K.L. Wombacher, the team's general manager. "It starts a new chapter for our franchise and a new page of history for the City of Hillsboro, so it's an exciting day."

Hillsboro Mayor Jerry Willey felt the same way. After the opening ceremony in which several officials, including Willey, spoke to the crowd which huddled under umbrellas as a light, but persistent rain fell, Willey took to a large piece of construction equipment in what would be shallow center field. He hopped in and took out a hunk of grass and dirt to signify that Hillsboro is now a home to professional baseball.

"I love baseball," said Willey, a man who has been involved in the game by either playing or coaching since he was a child. "What's not to love about baseball?"

Getting that love affair with baseball to Hillsboro was a bit of a challenge, though. Originally, Hillsboro city officials looked into bringing the Portland Beavers, a Triple-A affiliate of the San Diego Padres, into the city. However, city officials and club officials couldn't come to terms.

Later, the idea of Hillsboro getting a Single-A team started to grow. City officials talked with Mike McMurray, the owner of the Yakima Bears, along with Wombacher, about bringing the Yakima team to Hillsboro. Talks, however, broke down, but picked up again later after the team officials started shopping the team around to cities in the region, including Beaverton, Portland, MIlwaukie and Vancouver.

It looked as if Vancouver was going to secure a deal to bring the team to that city, but the deal fell through. Willey knew he had to make a move and talked with Hillsboro City Manager Michael Brown about revisiting the idea of getting the Yakima team to move to Hillsboro. Brown was on board. Excitement about the prospect of professional baseball began to spread.

"I think the reason why we were so encouraged to bring baseball to Hillsboro was because it's an affordable, positive event for kids and parents to come and enjoy as a family," Willey said.

Willey then called Wombacher about moving the team to Hillsboro.

"And he said, 'We'd love to come Hillsboro because that's where we really want to be,'" Willey said. "So then we just started negotiations again and literally from then to now, it's been six or seven months ... That's like a nano-second in this kind of deal because this had to go from here all the way to Major League Baseball and back down again. The design of the field had to be approved by Major League Baseball and the deal had to be done ... We pulled things together and got things done and it became a priority. Everyone we talked to inside the city just said, "Let's get it done.'"

Willey said the city was able to get the deal done so quickly because they had done so much homework on the deal prior. They already knew how much they could afford, the possible site of the ballpark and other various factors. He also said it helps that the site of the ballpark is at the Gordon Faber Recreation Complex that is already set up.

"So when you start with those kinds of things, you can fast-track pretty well," he said. "You've just got to be committed to the project."

Wombacher said that's what he noticed about Hillsboro city officials.

"Anytime you're working in a public-private partnership for a facility, there's going to be a ton of challenges," he said. "But I think the biggest difference here is that can-do attitude of the city. They liked the idea at first and wanted professional baseball here and to provide it to their citizens and they just made it happen. They rolled up their sleeves and at every obstacle they came to, they had that can-do approach to get through it, where a lot of times, you'll find it that when cities get to an obstacle, they stop because it gets hard."

With the green light now on for construction, it's full steam ahead for baseball in Hillsboro.

"For us, it's just about the excitement of the day and the excitement that the community has," Wombacher said. "People have been stopping me in coffee shops and on light rail a couple of times. The excitement level is much, much higher than we anticipated, so that's really encouraging for us."

Notes: The team's name and mascot have yet to be named, but team officials said that will be finalized in the coming weeks.

City and team officials estimate the team could bring anywhere from 100,000 to 180,000 fans to the area during the season. Officials also estimated the new stadium will seat approximately 4,500 fans.

Once play is underway, Hillsboro will officially become the second-biggest market in the Northwest League behind Vancouver, B.C.

Willey also said the grass from where construction began Friday won't go to waste. He said the sod that would be pulled up will go to another park in the city.

"We're trying to, again, be very efficient in everything we do," he said. "There's sod along the side of the tracks and infield and we're peeling that off and we're going to re-use that as well. There's a lot of planning that goes into these things and we're trying to be as sustainable as we can in everything we do."