Little League Park’s future still muddled

The Keizer Little League Park Long-Range Planning Task Force is recommending that the city seek to secure a long-term lease with an outside group to continue operating the park and complex. 

However, the way forward is far from clear and even some task force members seemed poised to oppose the recommendation when it hits the dais of the Keizer City Council. There is a stipulation in the recommendation stating that the city would take over management if no suitable lessor is found. The task force passed the recommendation in a 6-3 vote in its final meeting Wednesday, Jan. 15. 

Task force members have met for more than a year trying to plan a future for the park that provides maintenance and improvements. In that time, several of the faces at the table have changed as the two youth baseball leagues and city officials grappled with an uncertain future. The task force considered four options at the meeting: continuing with short-term contracts for the operation and management of the park; pursuing a long-term lease of 10 to 25 years; having the city take over the management of the park; or selling it outright. 

Task force members quickly eliminated the options of continuing with short-term contracts and selling the park, but it left the two others and no clear winner. 

Shane Diarmit, one of two Keizer Little League (KLL) reps on the task force, seemed to be the only one fully in favor of a long-term lease despite concerns that it stands the potential of taking the focus off Keizer ball players. 

“I think it’s something viable and I believe it’s something we can do,” Diarmit said. “You can write into the lease that it is for Keizer youth and that has to be your focus. What I hear is we have a lack of revenue and that ball has been dropped completely.”

At one point, Diarmit even clashed with his fellow KLL rep, Ryan Siegel, who appeared to support the city taking over the park operations before supporting the motion for a long-term lease. That moment gave task force member Matt Lawyer pause when casting his vote against the recommendation. 

“One of the themes I heard throughout this process was the time and resources it takes to operate this facility. If it meant paying a little more and not having to do anything, would you pay a little more,” Lawyer said. “We want there to be consistency and sustainability and there’s already a lack of consistency between the two reps of KLL.”

He added that without being able to guarantee a Keizer-connected entity winning the long-term lease, it was too uncertain of a gamble. 

The representatives of McNary Youth Baseball, Bo Lane and Rob Tavares, both supported the city assuming control of the space even if it meant paying higher usage fees. 

“I think the reality is the city should have taken over a long time ago. The issues we are dealing with come from only one organization managing the complex,” Lane said. “Parents would much rather pay $1,000 for a tournament ball team than pay $200 and have to work at the park.”

Councilor Marlene Parsons said she was wearing two hats – city councilor and grandmother – as she made her support for a long-term lease known. 

“The city is not wanting to take over the park,” said Councilor Parsons. 

“I pay a parks fee every month and I would like to see part of that fee go to the little league fields,” said Grandmother Parsons. 

Councilor Dan Kohler supported the long-term lease option, but said he had “cautious concerns” over making it the recommendation.

“We’ve had two groups use the short-term agreement and we’ve seen the people in Keizer Little League at the table have all changed and McNary Youth Baseball has a new name. How do we put together a long-term agreement when the league management changes from the people that are sitting at the table here,” Kohler said. 

Both Keizer City Manager Chris Eppley and Keizer Public Works Director Bill Lawyer said the city’s cost to run the facility would require higher fees from participating families. 

“I want nothing to do with managing that complex but, if we are going to do it, I want to do it right and it will affect the fees,” Bill Lawyer said. 

If the city had to hire additional employees to manage the facility, employee benefits requirements would add to overall cost of operations.

Eppley said it might even mean the park lies dormant for a season if youth leagues aren’t willing to extend the current contract. 

“[Taking over the park] would be a fundamental departure from the way the city was founded – minimalist government at the lowest possible cost,” Eppley said. “We don’t take on new programs if we can avoid it. This is a significant divergence from our business model. That said, the city council can tell me to get over it and say we are moving in a new direction.”

In the end, Matt Lawyer, Lane and Tavares all voted against the motion to seek a long-term lease. Lane asked if there would still be opportunities to oppose the move when the city council takes up the recommendation. 

There will be, possibly as soon as February.