Tuesday, October 05, 2004

If you took my recommendation and read Jim Bouton’s ”Foul Ball” , you could be forgiven for thinking that Jim was engaging in a bit of hyperbole in spots. After all, the politicians and other “powers that be” of Pittsfield couldn’t possibly really be as bad as he made them out to be, could they?

Well, they are. I saw it live and in person last night.

The occasion was a meeting of the city’s Parks Commission. In case you haven’t been following the story, Jim and Chip Elitzer’s latest attempt to refurbish Wahconah Park and bring minor league baseball back to Pittsfield had met a major road block. Because of the way the license agreement (essentially a lease) between Wahconah Park, Inc. (WPI) and the city had been written, the Carpenter’s Union in Pittsfield had filed a bid protest, which went to the state Attorney General. The Attorney General came back with an opinion that said that WPI would be subject to the public bid laws, which are the same rules that government agencies have to follow when they build a road or a building.

These laws are, obviously, designed to prevent government officials from handing out favors to their friends at taxpayer expense. They were not meant to prevent private business from investing in public facilities. Because of their unwieldy nature and the huge potential for cost overruns, Jim and Chip were not willing to go forward with the plans for Wahconah Park under the public bid laws. There was a bigger issue at stake as well - this would set a precedent for public-private partnerships throughout Massachusetts, something they were unwilling to be responsible for.

So, when you have an issue like this, what do you do? Logically, you amend the agreement so that the project falls outside the public bid laws. The AG’s opinion practically laid out a road map to do this, as he detailed the two major items that caused the license to fall under the public bid laws.

- The term of the lease was too short (it was only through the end of the 2005 season, renewable annually if certain performance criteria were met).
- The fact that a specific dollar figure ($1.5 million) worth of renovations was used.

This made the AG think that a short term benefit could accrue to the city and bypass the public bid laws. Chip and the city solicitor crafted, in the days just before and after the AG’s opinion, a new lease which removed the offending language and replaced it with a longer lease term and no specific dollar amount of renovations. All that was needed was the mayor’s approval and the project could go on.

Then the roof fell in.

Mayor Roberto announced, quite publicly, that he would not sign any agreement that was designed to get around the public bid laws. He did this in an attempt to curry favor with the municipal unions, a number of which have contract negotiations coming up.

Now there are a couple of problems with this thought process as I see it. First, how exactly is it good for unions if you eliminate $400,000 of work that would be done primarily by union labor? Second, does the mayor really think that the unions are going to ask for one dollar less on behalf of their membership because of this?

Jim and Chip decided, as a last ditch effort, to go to the Pittsfield Parks Commission, the body directly responsible for Wahconah Park. If they could get the Parks Commission to approve the revised agreement, they could then move it on to the City Council for their approval and hopefully that plus the inevitable public outrage when the citizenry heard that they were being bilked out of baseball again might convince the mayor to change his mind.

I was exchanging emails with Chip and Jim and made a rather offhand comment that I was tempted to drive out there to attend the meeting. If it was half as good as the stuff I read in “Foul Ball”, it would be worth the ride.

Chip wrote back saying that if I did come out, I could speak to the Parks Commission as an investor and explain why I (and just about any other investor with two ounces of common sense) would be unwilling invest money in a venture that was constrained by the public bid laws.

With that concept thrown in front of me, I couldn’t resist the need to be there. A. and I discussed it and we got our babysitter to come over and put the kids to bed so A. could go to Mah Jong. My boss (who I really need to write about here someday), not only gave me permission, but encouraged me to take off early so that I could get to the meeting on time. I wrote up some remarks, emphasizing the business reasons why this was an unacceptable state of affairs and my professional experience and drove out to Pittsfield.

I left the office about 3:45 to get out to the Berkshires for the 7:00 meeting. The ride passed uneventfully, and once WEEI faded out I listened to Brian Wilson’s new/old album “Smile” (a topic for another blog entry someday) and made a quick stop at a McDonald’s on the Mass Pike for some dinner. I made it to the Springside House, where the meeting was to be held, at about 6:30. I called home to let them know I had made it safe and sound and to say good night to the kids. While I was talking, Jim, Chip, Jim’s wife Paula, Chip’s wife Cindy and his son Sam arrived.

I walked up and said hello to the group and listened in while Jim and Chip strategized for the meeting. They also had some graphics featuring the team’s new name - the Pittsfield Owls. The name is for the plastic owls hanging from the roof of Wahconah Park to scare away pigeons, one of the many homey touches at the ballpark.

We went inside to get seats at the meeting. A pretty good crowd had shown up and was shoehorned into the small room - I’d guess about 30-40 people were there. Included in the crowd were a couple of the Hillies players and one of the coaches.

The chairman of the Parks Commission started the meeting. The agenda had Wahconah Park as the last item, as it was bound to take the most time. Just as the meeting started the City Solicitor charged in. He wanted to address the commission about the WPI proposal and had to leave for a 7:30 meeting.

His basic message was this: it was not the Park Commission’s place to review or approve the agreement with WPI. That was the mayor’s job, and the mayor was requesting that the Park Commission “file”, or table the agenda item. A few questions were asked by the commissioners and members of the audience and then the solicitor took off. He said a lot about how the Park Commissioners have been stuck in the middle of this. Of course, they are in charge of the parks - shouldn’t they be involved?

This changed the plan. Now Chip and Jim not only had to convince the commissioners to approve the agreement, they had to get them to even consider approving it. After the Parks Commission dealt with their other business for the evening, we got to what most of the people had come for.

Jim and Chip went up. Jim gave the soft pitch first; announced the new name of the team and talked about how WPI’s intention was to give kids in Pittsfield a clear path all the way from Little League through high school, college and then professional baseball.

Then Chip came up with the big guns. He talked about why the competitive bidding process was unacceptable to WPI. Then he said that if WPI and the Owls were successful and exceeded investors expectations, they would go back to the investors and raise a much greater amount of money to fund a new civic center, and provide a minor league hockey team. The civic center would once again be paid for entirely with private capital. It could host trade shows, expositions, concerts and other events that might help fill a lot of the hotel rooms in the area that stay empty once the busy summer season is over in the Berkshires. After finishing, he asked that the chairman of the commission open up the floor to public comments. The chairman refused. I’m not sure exactly why, since the reason he mumbled was so incredibly lame it was unbelievable.

It was at this point that Jim Bouton lost it.

Yeah, Jim really lost his temper. He started going on about how the public had a right to be heard; how an investor had come all the way from Boston to speak to the commission (that would be me). He then started talking about how they had poured their hearts and their money and their families time into this project. How he never would have come back to Pittsfield if he had known he had to deal with the politics again. About how Mayor Roberto had promised that he would clear the decks for this project. It was as if all the frustration built up over the last three years came pouring out. And I don’t think one person in the audience blamed him. I think a lot of the Pittsfield folks were embarrassed that their city had put Jim and Chip in this position.

Jim calmed down and then, inexplicably, one of the commissioners decided that Jim was somehow blaming him for the situation. Where he came up with this idea I’m not sure, but he seemed pretty mad. Jim’s wife Paula defused the situation and the shouting appeared to be over.

A brief recess was taken at this point. When we came back, the public was allowed to speak. Everyone who spoke (even a guy who is in a union) was in favor of WPI and the plans for the ballpark. I took my time to talk about why being subject to the public bid laws made the investment much less attractive. I’ll post a copy of my notes here. Chuck Garivaltis, who was manager of the Hillies and one of the commissioners said his piece. He supported the agreement, and said that the park commissioners needed to show some courage and send the message to City Hall that they thought this agreement was a good thing for Wahconah Park and a good thing for Pittsfield. He then made a motion that the commission send the agreement back to the mayor with their approval.

He couldn’t get a second.

Then one of the other commissioners made a motion that the agreement be simply sent back to the mayor, which was exactly what the mayor wanted. The motion was seconded and passed 4-1, with Garivaltis dissenting. It was over.

A group of WPI folks and supporters hung out in the hall for a bit, and then we began to head for our cars. Jim very kindly asked if I wanted to stay at his house so I wouldn’t have to make the 2 hour drive home. I might have taken him up on it if it wasn’t the end of the quarter and I didn’t have a ton to do at work today.

I asked Jim to sign my notes as a momento, which he was glad to do. He also gave me a poster signed by all the Hillies, which I’m going to have framed.

So what happens next? I’m not sure. Unless the mayor changes his mind (or is forced to change through an outraged public) it’s game over, since Jim and Chip absolutely will not allow the company to be subjected to the public bid laws. We’re also under a time constraint, since the open franchise in the Northeast League won’t be there forever.

It’s unbelievable to me that the city of Pittsfield has turned down a golden opportunity like this - not once, but twice! How many cities in this country would be down on their knees to a group that came into their town, promised to fix up their old ballpark at no taxpayer expense, provide professional baseball and, if all went well, build a civic center for the city?

We’ll see if anything happens, but I’m pretty much writing this off. I’m upset about it, not just because I lost the chance to fulfill a dream of owning a baseball team, but because I won’t get to continue to be in business with Chip and Jim. It’s not often you find businessmen who are honorable enough to strive to make sure all the stakeholders in a business transaction come out winners. If the City of Pittsfield had allowed it, the city would have won, the community would have won, local businesses would have won and WPI would have won. Instead, due to the unbelievable shortsightedness of Pittsfield’s public officials, the city has nothing.

Tomorrow, musings on the MLB playoffs, including the Sox 9-3 demolishing of Anaheim this afternoon.


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