The city of Hercules has paid almost $2 million for a ball field that does not exist and continues to pay a consultant $6,000 a month to grease the skids for what remains, as its name suggests, little more than a dream.
The idea for a “Big League Dreams” ballpark in Hercules was born more than two years ago in conversations between former City Manager Nelson Oliva and Pat Kight, who handled new park development for the Southern California company.
The plan was for six lighted ball fields—three of them to be replicas of famous parks like Yankee Stadium—a field house, two children’s playgrounds, an eight-station batting cage, food and booze concessions and more.
Big League Dreams, which runs similar parks in Manteca, Redding and nine other cities, books tournament play, drawing players from throughout a region, and that traffic translates into bookings at local hotels and spinoff retail and restaurant traffic.
Hercules was supposed to foot the bill for building the park, and Big League Dreams would run it, giving the city 5 percent of its gross, or a minimum of $100,000 a year, and putting another 1 percent into a maintenance fund.
Big League Dreams said it needed about 40 acres. So the city set its sights on the rolling hills north of Highway 4 next to the smokestacks of the ConocoPhillips carbon plant.
There was just one problem: The city doesn’t own the land; the oil company does. ConocoPhillips failed to return several requests for comment, but a close reading of city correspondence over the past few years suggests the oil company is far from a motivated seller.
Correspondence obtained by Hercules Patch between the city and its consultants reveals that the plan was to annex the land and place it into a redevelopment area, which can be a powerful tool against unwilling sellers. Using its powers of eminent domain under state redevelopment laws, cities can force an owner to sell at fair market value.
Eminent domain was never mentioned in the discussion of annexing land belonging to ConocoPhillips. The targeted parcel is vacant, providing little or no potential sales tax base to the city. Moreover, it is zoned for agricultural use.
While a formal annexation proposal has never been submitted to the county, Hercules taxpayers have spent almost $600,000 on engineering studies that would theoretically pave the way. Records of city expenditures reveal that former City Manager Michael Sakamoto had been actively researching the annexation as far back as 2007—a year before the city entered into formal agreements with Big League Dreams. Sakamoto was paid for the research by NEO Consulting Inc., a city contractor then providing advisory services to former city manager Oliva, who had succeeded Sakamoto at the helm of local government.
After stepping down as city manager in March 2007, Sakamoto began meeting on the city’s behalf with the Contra Costa Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), the agency responsible for overseeing and approving proposals to annex unincorporated land. In October 2007, soon before joining the city’s bond underwriter as a vice president, Sakamoto submitted a receipt to the city for copies of Highway 4 studies related to the annexation proposal.
Then, in July 2008, the City Council quietly approved to act as a consultant in the design and planning of the fields. There was no discussion, no debate and no public hearing to consider whether it was prudent to pay a consultant for things like helping the city furnish the ball fields before they even had a piece of land on which to build them.
Like many costly decisions the city made over the years, the contract was approved en masse with small-ticket items on the council's consent calendar. The next day, Kight of Big League Dreams e-mailed Oliva.
“Thanks again for last night’s approval,” he wrote. “I’m more excited about a Hercules park than any other I have been involved with. Regarding Friday’s visit to Manteca, Bill Russell will be at the park at 11 AM and can show your group through the park. Roy Featherolf, GM, will be on hand as well and will serve lunch to the folks around noon in one of the Stadium Clubs. Let me know if you need anything further.”
City Starts Paying Big League Dreams
In August 2008, the money started flowing—$30,000 a month to pay Big League Dreams for things like “project evaluation” and “conceptualization,” which the contract said should include site visits to help the city pick a location for the ballpark and offer advice on environmental roadblocks like traffic problems, grading and drainage.
And those services included “regular on-site meetings” with the city for which the firm was to have received reimbursements for travel from Southern California, regular meetings with the design team and help in picking a theme. In the latter stages of the contract, Big League Dreams was supposed to help the city send out requests for bids and choose a contractor and even help in selecting furniture and other things for the park.
But none of that ever happened, because the idea never got past the very first stage of acquiring a piece of land on which to build the ball field. The contract would have allowed the city to back out after paying Big League Dreams $90,000 over the first three months, but that never happened either.
The contract also promised the city would reimburse Big League Dreams for travel expenses, including 16 round trips from its headquarters in Southern California to Hercules. But the company never submitted any requests for reimbursements for travel to on-site meetings.
Kight retired in November 2010, and said he can’t speak to the current contract status between Big League Dreams and the city, but he points out that he maintained regular contact with Hercules and was informed that the city was moving forward with its annexation plans, which, obviously, would have been a first step in the process.
The payments continued, 24 of them in all, stretching into last summer, even though the city never submitted a formal plan for annexing the land on which the ball fields were to have been built. A final payment of $30,000 that legitimately should not have come due until construction of the ball fields was complete, has been withheld.
In November 2008, the council approved an additional $450,000 payment to Big League Dreams for the right to use its name, essentially, a license fee for a park that did not yet exist. The fee is fully refundable, but no one, as yet, has asked for it back.
A contract giving Big League Dreams the right to operate the ball fields was also approved on the consent calendar that year, but never signed. Oliva, then city manager, asked the council for permission to negotiate it further, and that, too, was approved with no public discussion.
Taxpayers have paid Big League Dreams almost $1.2 million, and there is nothing to show for it.
Oliva said he was not interested in speaking to the press. “I have an agreement that says I cannot speak to the press,” he explained. “Thank you.”
And Sakamoto could not be reached for comment.
The revolving door at Hercules City Hall has seen three city managers in as many months, and there is little collective memory to explain why it seems the city put the cart in front of the horse in these expensive contracts with Big League Dreams.
“We didn’t ask the right questions,” said Mayor Joanne Ward, who replaced Ed Balico following in January. She is facing a recall after 10 years of service. “We didn’t know the right questions to ask.”
Ward remembers taking a trip to Manteca to visit that city’s Big League Dreams Park, but she can’t explain why it made sense to pay the former city manager to act as the city’s intermediary on the project. “I’m not sure that was the right thing to do,” she said.
Like Councilman Don Keuhne, another recall target, Ward says the main appeal of the project was the potential economic benefit to the city.
“I think Mr. Oliva was optimistic that if he could get a franchise agreement, that would prevent other people in the area from getting it,” said Keuhne, who points out that he was elected to the council in November 2008, after the contracts had been approved.
The $450,000 licensing agreement gave Hercules rights to use the Big League Dreams name, and it also guaranteed the operators wouldn’t open another park nearby that might steal foot traffic from the city.
Scoring Land for the Ballpark
Whatever the thinking was behind the project, it must have quickly become obvious to the city that getting its hands on the land was going to prove trickier than originally envisioned. So in March 2009, the council agreed to pay a political consultant $6,000 a month for “interface and advocacy” with LAFCO.
The , once an aide to former Contra Costa County Supervisor Tom Powers, was not supposed to exceed $60,000. But today, two years later, Koch is still collecting $6,000 a month. Various amendments approved by the City Council have upped his limit to $150,000, and by the end of January, he had been paid $132,000 despite the fact that a formal proposal to annex the land for the ball field has never been submitted to LAFCO.
Reached in Seattle, where he lives, Koch said former city manager Oliva asked him to help with the annexation in part because of his leadership inWaterfront Now, an initiative to develop the waterfront in Hercules.
“I’ve been involved with annexation issues for a long time,” Koch said. “This one was especially complicated with the potential opposition of ConocoPhillips.”
With two new faces on the City Council and a mounting city debt, it’s not clear whether the Big League Dreams ever will become a reality.
But the proposed annexation, now twice amended since the original target of 500 acres, is a separate question. If the annexation ever does go through, Koch’s contract entitles him to a $100,000 “bonus,” even if he’s not still working for the city at that time.
Thanks to the broad powers of eminent domain, and some creative thinking about the paths toward annexation, it might not matter what the oil company thinks about having baseball diamonds in its back yard.
Bob Porterfield contributed to this report.
Friday: Check back at Hercules Patch for more on the annexation.