Neighbors question public benefit, impact as Spec Keene Stadium plans advance

A procedural vote Thursday that would advance plans to develop an existing baseball field adjacent to Bush’s Pasture Park for professional play has become a rallying point for Salem residents opposing the project over concerns about parking, noise and neighborhood impacts.

Salem’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Board is scheduled to vote in a 1 p.m. meeting on an update to the city’s agreement with Willamette University for the university’s use of Spec Keene Stadium, McCulloch Stadium and Bush’s Pasture Park.

The update is a step in the Willamette University and Salem Baseball plan to use Spec Keene Stadium as the home field for a new home team in the West Coast League that includes the Portland Pickles.

The plan for the stadium includes installing synthetic turf, new lights, an adjusted entryway and field netting at John Lewis Field, according to a report from Parks Planning Manager Rob Romanek. The plans also include added accessibility, new fencing and a new field light pole. 

The project received $3 million in taxpayer money from state legislators earlier this year, primarily because the development will allow local high schools to use the field.

Though the stadium is owned by Willamette University, its location is surrounded on three sides by Bush’s Pasture Park. That has brought questions from some neighbors about the impact large sporting events and new equipment would bring to the historic area.

Over 80 Salemites, most residents of Ward 2, which includes the park, signed a letter to the parks advisory board opposing the plans ahead of Thursday’s meeting.

“We are opposed to converting the legacy lands of the Bush Family, the park and parking lots, into a de facto summer baseball league facility for, in essence, a commercial for-profit operation which would provide revenue generation for Willamette University and a private corporate entrepreneur,” the letter says.

Salem City Council will have the deciding vote on the updated agreement, which outlines use of the field, and allows an expanded encroachment into the historic park for the accessibility and fencing changes.

How to participate

The Salem Parks and Recreation Advisory board meets Thursday, June 13, at 1 p.m. and is open to the public. It will be in the City Operations Building, 1457 23rd St. S.E. and will be livestreamed on YouTube. The deadline to submit public comment for the meeting has passed.

Shared use of the stadium

Leaders at Salem Baseball and Willamette University say their plans won’t bring drastic changes to the historic park, which has consistently hosted dozens of collegiate baseball games each summer since 1950. Neighbors in opposition say the stadium hasn’t yet seen regular, highly trafficked games.

In January, the city council approved a memorandum of understanding to begin negotiations for changes to the stadium. The plans also include updates to the softball stadium at 501 14th St. S.E., owned by Tokyo International University of America and leased by Willamette University.

Under the agreement which the parks and recreation board is considering on Thursday, the city, the Salem-Keizer School District and the university would work together to schedule events, though Willamette will have priority over its facilities.

The agreement outlines that the city can use the facility for recreation programs and sports competitions, and will not pay fees for the annual Salem Kids’ Relay.

The Salem-Keizer School District will be able to use the softball and baseball fields for free for the next decade. Willamette has pledged to make the fields available to them next spring.

Lara Tiffin, who directs athletics for the school district, said that high school teams will work around Willamette’s practice schedules and games during the school year. She said high school students will be able to play at the baseball stadium all afternoon and evenings on Mondays; in the evenings Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays; and every other weekend. 

She said they’ll be able to fit in at least one game Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. All six district high schools will rotate use of the stadium.

“None of our high schools have turf baseball nor softball fields,” she said, which is a problem in rainy weather. They’ll use their own fields when the weather’s nice, but in rainier seasons, “it’s very possible we’ll be using it every single second we can.”

Tiffin said that the school district is excited about the enhanced partnership with Willamette, which she said is happening because of the use of public funds. 

“They’ve been partnering with us throughout the whole project,” she said. “We feel it’s going to be an incredible opportunity for our kids.”

A ground level rendering of the path and fence along the south edge of Spec Keene Stadium. Athletic Director Rob Passage said that the net will not be this visible in reality (Courtesy/ Willamette University)

Questions from neighbors

Neighbors living near the park have been split on the project.

The board of the South Central Association of Neighbors, the association which includes the park, voted 7-4 to support the city’s earlier agreement to continue evaluating the project possibilities. Vice President Evan West said it is the only action the full board has taken recently on the baseball proposal.

In April, West said neighbors at the SCAN meeting brought questions, concerns and some arguments in support of the plan. The association compiled a list of questions including the impact of traffic, the disruption of a historical neighborhood and why they can’t use another stadium like Chemeketa Community College or Volcanoes Stadium in Keizer.

“Although representatives from Salem Baseball and Willamette University were in attendance, there has since been no attempt to answer or respond to these questions,” West said.

Salem Baseball owner Luke Emanuel said in an emailed response to Salem Reporter on Wednesday that much of the project’s current design comes from neighborhood feedback. 

“Willamette and I are actively working on answering the questions from SCAN’s April meeting but the focus, as of late, has been in doing the same work to answer questions from (the parks advisory board) in time for the meeting tomorrow,” he said.

Emanuel said they plan to supply SCAN with answers and information during the neighborhood association’s July meeting.

Rob Passage, who directs Willamette University’s athletics programs, said in an email to Salem Reporter that the university has done 18 park walks with neighbors so far to share information about the project, and also hosted an open house with the landscape architect.

Joan Stembridge and Dan Simmons, who are leading the signature effort ahead of Thursday’s meeting, said they believe the plans contradict the intended use of the park. The couple lives less than two blocks away.

“It’s a degradation of a historic place that’s very heavily used by Salem,” Simmons said. “And it will be replaced by a for-profit thing, which is maybe antithetical to the deed restrictions imposed by the Bush Family.”

They point to the city’s 2021 Bush’s Pasture Park and Deepwood Estate Gardens Cultural Landscape Management plan, which surveyed the community’s favorite parts of the park. Their responses ranked watching and playing baseball in 13th place. Walking, viewing gardens and the Salem Art Fair were the top three.

The pair said that the baseball team would violate the management plan’s mission to preserve the historic, public natural space.

“What this is going to do is thwart the uses that people enjoy and replace it with a nighttime, for-profit, noisy, well-lighted, heavily parked baseball franchise,” Simmons said.

Both said that, given the park’s historical purpose, it should not prioritize a commercial enterprise. Unlike the annual Salem Art Fair, which also takes place in the park, Stembridge said that the events will be repeated multiple times throughout the year to disrupt park usage.

Emanuel said that they aren’t changing the park. 

“We are simply utilizing private property adjacent to the park for a use that has been occurring since 1950, making that space more available to the community and providing a new reason for more people to visit the park in the process,” he said.

Emanuel said that in addition to the high schools, the fields will also be open to the Boys & Girls Club, the YMCA and Special Olympics.

“It will help keep more of the entertainment dollars of our residents local (instead of going up to Portland), it will increase hotel stays, increase traffic to our downtown area and, through the community involvement of my summer team, it will shine a spotlight on local non-profits and community stories,” he said.  

Passage said that there are also plans to host community camps and activities in the summertime.

Stembridge said she feels that the stated purpose of supporting youth sports in the community is overplayed.

“The real purpose is to have a profitable business,” she said. 

Stembridge said that the league could use Volcanoes Stadium in Keizer, which would have a better parking situation and would not be in a historical neighborhood.

Emanuel said that the Keizer stadium was not central enough to benefit high schools, it doesn’t have a softball field and there is already a summer league occupying it. He said he’s been asked about using Chemeketa, Geer Park, Wallace Marine Park and Holland Youth Park, too. He said the answer is “Why not Spec Keene Stadium?” 

“Why can’t Salem have something cool that is downtown and easily accessible from all parts of the Salem community? Why shouldn’t we make Bush’s Pasture Park a destination for all Salem residents, not just those who live near it?” he said.

Simmons and Stembridge said neighbors are also concerned about the new lights and noise from around 27 games each summer.

“This baseball program is hoping for a minimum of 500 cars so that people can come,” she said, and that others will be discouraged from driving to the park to enjoy it. “My biggest issue is for the families who come in the summer and they want to have a family picnic … those are the people that are going to be bumped out.”

The couple said they support bringing a baseball team from the league to Salem, but don’t believe next door to Bush’s Pasture Park is the right place for it.

“We would be cheering on this project if it weren’t destroying the ambiance, and the history and the future of this priceless city jewel,” Stembridge said. 

Emanuel said that highly attended baseball games are nothing new to the stadium, and that Salem Baseball is the new summer tenant in a long line of teams.

“Willamette’s ballpark has hosted high school baseball games where the stadium was packed (South Salem vs McNary 2023). That event required no traffic or parking accommodations and, to their knowledge, Willamette received no complaints from the neighbors, park users or the city,” he said.
After the city’s board released its Thursday agenda with the agreement, the neighborhood association’s parks and preservation committee formally asked the city’s advisory board to defer its decision until their next meeting in July.

“Two working days, at best, for citizens to review in-depth the Staff recommendation and accompanying materials is staggeringly insufficient,” committee Chair Jon Christenson wrote.

Christenson told Salem Reporter he won’t know whether the board has accepted their request until the meeting convenes on Thursday.

A rendering of Spec Keene Stadium as seen from the left field (Courtesy/ Willamette University)

Correction: This article originally misstated the organization that would make the fields available to the Salem-Keizer School District. It is Willamette University, which owns the fields, not Salem Baseball. Salem Reporter apologizes for the error.

Contact reporter Abbey McDonald: [email protected] or 503-575-1251

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Abbey McDonald joined the Salem Reporter in 2022. She previously worked as the business reporter at The Astorian, where she covered labor issues, health care and social services. A University of Oregon grad, she has also reported for the Malheur Enterprise, The News-Review and Willamette Week.