Hercules' Field of Broken Dreams

City strikes out on costly ballpark plan.

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 MantecaRedding 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 monthsbut 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. 

Phil Simmons February 17, 2011 at 02:55 PM
Toni Leance February 17, 2011 at 03:25 PM
when will it ever end!!
tsong Ming February 17, 2011 at 03:44 PM
Good Grief. This is just like Red Barn, throwing money down the drain on a project that is going nowhere. Our civic leaders have been delusional and have acted recklessly. It's not THEIR money so they have gambled and lost on all manner of projects. And the city is still paying Oliva. This is heartbreaking. My partner and I love this city, but it has been run into the ground. All the bad projects may ultimately doom the one project that matters the most, the Waterfront.
Donna W. February 17, 2011 at 03:45 PM
"We didn't ask the right questions.” "We didn’t know the right questions to ask.” Come on! Joanne Ward and Don Kuehne seem to forget that that was their JOB to ask the right questions and follow up questions. Trying to act innocent now is so lame!
John Kelley February 17, 2011 at 04:39 PM
Ten years ago, a functional ball field at Sycamore and San Pablo was terra-formed in preparation for a new "big box" store. The field wasn't a "Field of Dreams," it was just a great place for all members of the family could enjoy. There's a whole generation of kids who won't experience baseball and softball in their hometown. Somewhere along the line someone forgot that Hercules is adjacent to Pinole Valley and not Portola Valley.
RJ February 17, 2011 at 05:04 PM
The RDA is a waste of our tax dollars and its time to put RDA to rest as Gov Brown proposal suggests. The council is way over its head on following the money. This agency has been a failure for years as Hercules has proven.
Oz Beckers February 17, 2011 at 05:24 PM
What part of "putting a baseball field next to a refining facility" sounded like a HEALTHY IDEA?! City of Hercules officials should be ashamed. This former Oakland resident used to boast about how great Hercules actually was, now I hide the fact I even know about it.
Susan D.Keeffe February 17, 2011 at 05:39 PM
Appalling. Lessons to be learned - watch the Consent Calendar! Since all these horrible decisions were approved, en masse, without question, with a 5-0 yes vote as they were contained in the Consent Calendar, I hope the Council will seriously consider adopting a policy in which there is a dollar limit on Consent Calendar items and that limit should be low, perhaps as low as $5000. Any other spending must be open for discussion and the Counci provided full and complete information at least 10 days prior to the Council meeting when the item is coming up for discussion. We can learn from our mistakes. In the meantime, Hercules must immediately stop the bleeding and regroup in order to move forward. This is a fine City but we will have to work hard to overcome this current situation and we will all have to "hang in there" as our hard-working City employees struggle with all of this. I'm confident it will get better!
joseph Guadagne February 17, 2011 at 06:29 PM
Another layer of the onion is pealed away and it too stinks!!! Makes me want to cry!!! :-)
35 Year Resident February 17, 2011 at 06:58 PM
You're right Joseph, there is a stench in Hercules and it's not from the sewer treatment plant.....
Glenn Abraham February 17, 2011 at 07:29 PM
Although there are already far too many reasons why Kuehne and Ward must be recalled, this article does provide a few more. Although Ms. Ward now claims not to have known the right questions to ask when the Council was creating this monster, she seems to have been sufficiently confident at the time to have approved each additional step over the cliff. (I'm assuming that, if she had opposed this disaster at its birth, she would be crowing about that opposition now.) If Ms. Ward didn't know enough to know what she was getting us into, she shouldn't have gotten us into it. And, Dr. Kuehne again unfurls his favorite excuse, that of having been elected in November 2008, after the initial approval; yes, and his election PRECEDED the March 2009 contract with Tom Koch. That was his opportunity to do the right thing. Did he? I appreciate the fact that Joanne Ward, in the style of an Afghan militia chieftain, has switched sides, and is now behind OUR ramparts; and, she is just too NICE to generate anger. Still, she has proven her incompetence, and demonstrated the elasticity of her principles and loyalties, and must be recalled. Kuehne...no further comment required.
Glenn Abraham February 17, 2011 at 07:38 PM
Isn't it interesting, the frequency with which Sakamoto's name pops up in the unfolding saga of the years of our undoing? I'd like to see a lot more reporting on Sakamoto's role in creating all this.
Susan D.Keeffe February 17, 2011 at 08:11 PM
Glenn, Apparently Sakamoto and Oliva knew each other in southern California. and Batara, now on an important financial ad hoc committee (!) was a strong proponent of the HMU. I recommend folks watch the recording of the Town Hall meeting held last night! The topics were primarily the HMU, The Waterfront and some on Sycamore North. It is clear that despite the outward support for the Waterfront, at least some Council members were not that supportive and had no problems at all agreeing to all sorts of projects scattered all over the City without regard to whether they were even feasible or not while some individuals lined their pockets. The City lost focus, direction and accountability. This will be fixed! But it isn't going to be pretty, or easy. And it will take time, probably at least two years to get it all cleared out.
35 Year Resident February 17, 2011 at 08:24 PM
Hobbs, Sakamoto and Oliva were cronies in SoCal as well as here.
Laila Kearney (Editor) February 17, 2011 at 08:40 PM
I've seen comments on this story and others about residents feeling embarrassed by the city's current financial and political situation. How has what's happening in Hercules affected you socially and how are you dealing with it?
Glenn Abraham February 17, 2011 at 08:47 PM
I'm aware of the early connections amongst the Sakamoto/Oliva/Hobbs troika, Hawaiian Gardens and all that. What I'm curious about is the role played by Sakamoto once he was no longer so brightly in public view as Hercules City Manager, i.e., how deeply implicated was he in the affairs of Hercules after the termination of his official, public role? It may be that, since the installation of Oliva as Sakamoto's replacement, our eyes were on Oliva (and Balico and Valstad). Behind the scenes, what was Sakamoto up to? The following was news to me: "...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.,...." Okay, so there's that "paid" connection between former Civil Servant Sakamoto and Oliva's personal moneymaker, NelsonEOliva Consulting; and, didn't Jeffrey find some link between Sakamoto and Balico's company? In what other ways has Private Citizen Sakamoto been implicated in the transactions which are currently smothering us? Who paid whom to do what?
Dn February 17, 2011 at 09:10 PM
To read something like this is appalling. I do not know how Ward and Kuehne can sleep at night knowing their ignorance of asking questions as council members has helped lead Hercules into a financial quagmire. This is only more ammunition to relieve them of their council duties.
Oz Beckers February 17, 2011 at 09:19 PM
"I've seen comments on this story and others about residents feeling embarrassed by the city's current financial and political situation. How has what's happening in Hercules affected you socially and how are you dealing with it?" Empty pocket books due to bloated tax increases to pay for the city's irresponsibility I'm sure will leave a nice scar. Socially? That's the thing, there is nothing social about Hercules. They were trying to make it so with developments and planning, yet I see the Marketplace parking lot nearly barren every day. So much for that.
tsong Ming February 17, 2011 at 10:15 PM
How has what's happening in Hercules affected me socially? I think the more important question is how has what's happening affected the general perception of Hercules? ? My partner was in a conversation with a person who is being relocated from the east coast to work in Hercules. He was talking about moving to Walnut Creek, and commuting to work in Hercules. "Why not just move to Hercules? It's a nice place to live." He replied, "Are you kidding? After everything I've read about what is going on? I can't take the risk of buying a house if the city is going bankrupt."
Lollie Murphy February 17, 2011 at 11:40 PM
Were will the City of Hercules be in the next 2 years? I feel that we are going down. What will come up next. The Dynamite City same like no more.
Hector Rubio February 17, 2011 at 11:43 PM
The article's statement "In October 2007, soon before joining the city’s bond underwriter as a vice president, Sakamoto ...." gives a clue about the financial motivations at City Hall. In 2007 Kinsell Newcom & de Dios (Sakamoto's employer) sponsored three RDA Tax bond issues of $60.5 million, $13.1 million and $12.7 million at the direction of Sakamoto's crony Oliva. KN&D was compensated $1.3 million, $356,558, and $245,888 for each issue; surely Sakamoto received a large bonus as a reward for these transactions. Olivia received $85.5 million with which to play monopoly and funnel into NEO and cronies. In return Hercules taxpayers received: little used Market Hall; unimproved land with fancy names like Big League Dreams, New Town Center, Parcel C, Victoria Crescent, Sycamore Crossings; an incomplete Sycamore North; and most importantly, bond payments of $3.9 million per year until 2042, and $747k and $559k until 2033. Sigh..... For more information about Sakamoto follow the link: http://www.spoke.com/info/pBDXnlw/MichaelSakamoto
Gerard Boulanger February 18, 2011 at 12:04 AM
As usual, the good old adage is true again: "Follow the money"... It's sad such a little town has been under the control of a few persons for so long.
Glenn Abraham February 18, 2011 at 12:10 AM
If Kuehne and Ward took positive steps that got us into this mess, there's clearly no question about whether or not we should recall them; but, shouldn't we be raising the question of whether or not we should SUE them?
Joseph Catindig February 18, 2011 at 12:19 AM
At this point, does anyone know what the city's option are as far as legal actions against sakamoto, oliva, balico, valstad and mcdonald? Is the city even looking at this angle? I personally think we need to start making them accountable for all these mess that they left. I hate to see these cockroaches roaming around, walking their dogs, going to the grocery store, going to church, etc.etc. without even a hint of remorse. If I can only do citizens arrest on them, I will be on it like right now.
Gen. E February 18, 2011 at 01:54 AM
Joseph, as far as legal action is concerned, what's the role of the city's district attorney at the moment? It seems like he got nothing to do with the cleaning up of the city's mess. Do you believe he is not a part of the whole mess? In my opinion, he too should be investigated and crossed-examined for the legal aspect of these mess. Otherwise, he too will be in jeopardy. Those people who have mentioned are considered unworthy, deserve to be prosecuted because of their wrongful act. Hopefully, it won't be long.
Angela Crandell February 19, 2011 at 05:56 PM
I have always been proud of Hercules and have enjoyed living here. It breaks my heart to see the same ignorance and corruption here as I see throughout the rest of the nation's politics. I thought we were different. I thought having residents, people who have invested their families and lives in our town, would make a difference in how they made decisions. I guess not. All funding for all projects, that are not in process, should be immediately stopped and reevaluated in order to stop the bleeding. We need to get reclaim our city from the greedy. What a shame and an absolute waste!!!
Susan D.Keeffe February 19, 2011 at 10:14 PM
Angela, When we started the Recall we learned Hercules is filled with good, busy people who work hard and are raising their families. Its a good City and a good place to raise families. The problem is we weren't paying attention. Now we are. Its looking like Oliva was running a sort of Ponzi scheme. As long as he had new RDA projects going he and Sakamoto could keep moving the money around. Then he got sick and Long started discovering things. There certainly should be a criminal investigation. But we as citizens need to pay more attention and demand our Council do its due diligence.
Susan Tarvin February 20, 2011 at 07:38 PM
Another huge waste of the City taxpayer's dollars. In the not too distant future it will be time to vote to recall two Council members (Ward and Kuehne) who helped lead us down this path. Pleas of ignorance, like: "I wasn't aware of what the evil City Manager was doing" just don't cut it. You knew or should have known, and both voted to give him a nice, huge, cushy year of pay after he left. He should have been fired a long time ago. We need leaders who question authority, and provide effective checks and balances on all levels of City government. Please register to vote, get involved, participate and voice your opinions when the time comes! We need citizen input.


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