The Boise Hawks, who are 1-4 after five games on the road, play their first home game of the season Wednesday.
Opening Night always brings a new summer of enthusiasm, a new season of optimism and a new series of questions: Who are the new boys of summer? Who are the superstars? Will the Hawks compete for a Northwest League championship? And whos good enough to end up in the big leagues?
But as the Hawks begin their 12th season as the short-season Class A affiliate of the Chicago Cubs, a bigger question comes to mind: Will it be the last?
The Cubs player development contract with the Hawks ends Sept. 1 the final day of the Northwest Leagues regular season and the major-league club has made it clear that its not happy with an aging Memorial Stadium.
The Cubs want progress toward a new stadium or massive improvements to Memorial Stadium before extending its deal in Boise.
Memorial Stadium was built in 1989 for $2.3 million in private money. The stadium lacks many of the amenities that have become commonplace in minor-league baseball and, according to Cubs owner Tom Ricketts, are needed to build a first-class organization.
The facility here is below standard, Ricketts said when he visited Boise last August. All the (minor-league) facilities we have are substantially better.
Boise is assured of having a team as long as the Hawks ownership group wants a team in the city, though the group contends any other parent club would have the same complaints about Memorial Stadium.
But the Hawks hopes for substantial movement on a new $25 million multi-use stadium before the Cubs September deadline have been stymied.
No one is willing to step up, and its kind of disappointing to me to be honest with you, said Northwest League President Bob Richmond, a Boise resident. As a league, we want to have Boise there forever. But someday something is going to have to happen stadium-wise to make it possible to stay there.
The City of Boise did a feasibility study last summer identifying a clear need, and the Better Boise Coalition picked two ideal locations for the park: near 30th and Main and 27th and Fairview streets.
Thats where the project has stalled.
Its stuck in neutral, said Marc Johnson, co-chair of the Better Boise Coalition, a local business group that has pushed the stadium issue harder than anyone. Lots of people understand the need, maybe even understand the opportunity. ... The piece thats missing is who is going to lead the charge here.
Boise, Meridian and Ada County all express support for a new stadium or renovations. None have been willing to commit significant money to the project.
The City of Boise supports the construction of a new multi-use stadium in Boise, but we must remember that no public funding was used for the current Hawks stadium, City of Boise spokesperson Adam Park told the Idaho Statesman. For public funding to be used on a new facility, we must first ensure there is a broad coalition of stakeholders and a realistic finance plan.
Our priority is to build a successful project, not a quick one.
The Hawks have talked with Meridian officials as well, hoping to capitalize on the citys location and population. But Meridian is not offering land or money to the project, instead focusing on connecting the Hawks and developers.
Its important for the entire Treasure Valley to keep them here, first and foremost. Its good for businesses, good for families, good for everybody, said Robert Simison, the chief of staff for Meridian Mayor Tammy de Weerd. ... We want to be a part of it as much as we can, but the reality is were not looking at publicly financing a stadium through the city.
The Hawks have talked with Ada County, which owns the property on which Memorial Stadium sits, about a loan for improvements. The Hawks have offered to increase their lease payment from the current $1-per-year rate to repay the loan. The lease runs through 2039.
We dont have any money for that type of investment, Ada County Commissioner Rick Yzaguirre said. Were interested in partnering with them. Wed love to keep the partnership going and maybe phase some things in. But they were hoping for a chunk of money they could borrow. I dont know where theyd find it.
Other cities are finding it.
Hillsboro, Ore., approved construction of a $15.2 million stadium and will be home to the Yakima Bears next season. The Bears were unhappy with the conditions at Yakima County Stadium, which opened in 1993.
The team will not contribute to the construction of the 4,500-seat stadium in Hillsboro a western suburb of Portland but will pay $150,000 annually in rent, a figure that will rise 3 percent each year during the 20-year lease.
Richmond said other cities in the Northwest are interested in building stadiums to get a team. Milwaukie, Ore., is among the cities pushing for a new ballpark to lure a team.
The Hawks want to stay there, but down the road, if something doesnt happen, we may lose this franchise, Richmond said.
Hawks President and General Manager Todd Rahr doesnt think the club is on the verge of leaving, like Yakima will after this season. He said the idea of moving outside the Treasure Valley hasnt even come up.
Boise is a large market in the Northwest Leagues footprint, has a respected host-family program and a tradition of on-field success with five league championships since 1990. Boise has had a team in the Northwest League since 1987, first as an independent team, followed by affiliations with the Angels and Cubs.
Do I feel like thats our next option? I dont feel that way. I feel like theres some momentum here, Rahr said. ... Our commitment is to the Treasure Valley. It would have to be the right thing for us to even consider (moving), but we havent done anything outside of the Treasure Valley. And right now, I dont think thats where we want to go or even where were going to go until were 100 percent dead in the water, which were not.
The problems with Memorial Stadium are numerous, according to the Hawks, Cubs and most neutral observers.
The clubhouse doesnt have enough room for 40 or so players, coaches and roving instructors. It has two toilets and two urinals. It lacks a film room, a place to eat and a room for players to relax before or after games. There is one batting cage, a small training room and a dugout that needs to grow. It lacks a place to do laundry, which is a daily chore for a baseball team that plays 76 games in 79 days. It also does not meet federal requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The Cubs have signed a waiver in recent seasons as the stadium does not meet current minor-league criteria, Richmond said.
In talks with Ada County, the sides have discussed smaller improvements: converting dilapidated fields beyond the left-field wall into additional parking or batting cages, paving parking areas and closing the main fairgrounds entrance road just south of the ballpark to enhance entrances. Yzaguirre said the Hawks have considered charging for parking to raise funds for additional improvements.
We have a long summer to get some things furthered, Rahr said, adding that he is meeting with Boise mayors office Wednesday afternoon. Weve been rolling on some things for the past couple of years, but at this point I think (the Cubs) are going to want to see some definitive things being done for them to be satisfied on the facility front. So thats what weve got to do.
In fact, Rahr remains optimistic that the Cubs will recommit to the Hawks in September. Its Opening Day, after all, when hope springs eternal even for the Cubs famous for their 104-year (and counting) World Series drought.
Even if we dont have a solution by the end of the summer, as long as we have some momentum going in that direction and more than weve had in the past I think the Cubs will stay, he said. I really do.