Happy Ending in Sight for Kidsports

By Beacon Staff

The fortune cookie given to Kidsports president Dan Johns at dinner before Monday’s critical city council meeting revealed a foreshadowing message.

“Be prepared to receive something special,” the tiny piece of paper read.

Nearly 17 years after the city of Kalispell began relocating athletic fields to a section of school trust land that evolved into a regional landmark, the city council looks poised to purchase the entire permanent easement for Kidsports Complex using tax increment finance (TIF) funds.

A consensus emerged at a work session inside City Hall after councilors debated the merits of finalizing what the city started in 1996 and tapping into available funds in one of its TIF districts.

Six councilors — Jeff Zauner, Tim Kluesner, Phil Guiffrida III, Randy Kenyon, Wayne Saverud and Jim Atkinson — banded together in majority support of a proposal to use $2.26 million from the Kalispell City Airport/Athletic Complex TIF district to pay the state of Montana for the easement.

The council will officially vote on the resolution in its final meeting of the year at 7 p.m., Dec. 17. If the resolution were approved, the city could immediately authorize payments to the state and avoid a $22,000 additional option fee due after Dec. 31.

It would also solidify Kidsports’ future and signal a monumental victory for the popular youth complex.

“It’s a legitimate project and a legitimate expense,” Saverud said.

“It’s practically a no-brainer,” Kenyon said. “I’m behind it 100 percent.”

Kenyon’s turnaround reflected a sign of coalescing support in the council as the deadline for easement payments nears. He previously expressed reservations about solely using TIF funds for the purchase. But he said he changed his mind after realizing the possible consequences of floating a citywide general obligation bond asking voters to decide whether to pay for part of Kidsports’ easement.

“You don’t want to pit the citizens of Kalispell against Kidsports,” Kenyon said.

Mayor Tammi Fisher remained reluctant of using only TIF funds. She built on her previous idea that the city manage the youth complex like Buffalo Hill Golf Club and proposed the Kidsports nonprofit organization make annual payments into the TIF district for the remaining years as a way to restore funds.

“At least I can sleep at night knowing the TIF is not being totally obliterated,” she said.

Councilor Kari Gabriel, who was not present Monday, has previously supported a similar “hybrid” payment plan.

Fisher’s proposal spurred a quick rebuttal from Zauner, who disagreed with the comparison to Buffalo Hill. Instead, he compared Kidsports to a city park like Woodland that is maintained by the city but does not draw revenue.

As far as paying money back into the TIF, Zauner said there are no projects that warrant funding right now anyhow, but if there were in the near future they could obtain a loan.

The Airport/Athletic Complex TIF generates roughly $500,000 a year, according to the city.

Zauner added that removing the old ball fields in south Kalispell opened up land that was purchased and developed by businesses like Rosauers and Mackenzie River Pizza, which have benefited the local economy and south entrance.

“I think we need to do it. I think it’s an obligation that we have to do it,” Zauner said of the proposed easement purchase.

City Manager Doug Russell is crafting an updated memo of understanding that the Kidsports organization would need to enter into if Kalispell purchased the entire easement.

On Tuesday morning, Russell said the exact terms of the deal are still being negotiated. Johns, speaking for the Kidsports organization, has already stated an intention to match the city dollar for dollar through private fundraising to pay for future projects and upgrades, primarily the completion of Four Mile Drive.

Johns predicted that support from donors could help Kidsports construct the rest of Four Mile Drive at a lower cost than if the city put out a bid.

“That’s a huge benefit. That is epic to have that done,” Kluesner said of Four Mile Drive, which could attach to the future U.S. Highway 93 Alternative Route. “And it’s something we cannot do with TIF dollars … That’s a pretty good trade off, and not only enhances the ball fields but also that end of town.”

Johns went further, telling council that Kidsports is prepared to help pay for future maintenance costs at the complex. The city most recently paid $180,000 for annual upkeep at Kidsports, a $40,000 hike over the previous year due to equipment needs. With the permanent easement acquired, eliminating the $44,000 annual lease payments, Kidsports would have funds newly available.

“We’re not looking for a free ride. We’re stepping up to the plate,” Johns said, adding, “We’re interested in continuing the partnership.”