City News

City council allows Willamette University, for-profit baseball league to proceed with stadium revamp

The Salem City Council on Monday unanimously approved a controversial agreement between the city and Willamette University allowing the university, in partnership with a for-profit summer baseball league, to retrofit baseball fields next to Bush’s Pasture Park.  

The agreement was approved unanimously in an 8-0 vote despite public testimony, mostly against the agreement, from 8 people. Councilor Vanessa Nordyke was absent.

The new agreement is part of the university’s initiative along with Salem Baseball LLC to improve John Lewis Field, which is expected to encroach slightly into Bush’s Pasture Park. The ultimate goal is to host a summer baseball team from the West Coast League, the same league as the Portland Pickles.

Members of the public, many of whom spoke during the public comment section of the meeting, interjected with, “Shame on you!” after the final vote.

The council approved an updated agreement which includes a fireworks ban, and an annual review requirement to assess the effects the updated baseball fields — and the associated influx of foot and vehicular traffic — may have on the park and the community. 

On June 13, members of Salem’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Board voted in favor of an updated agreement with the university.

The new agreement clarifies who is responsible for using and maintaining the facilities, said Scott Archer, deputy city manager for community services, in a staff report. The agreement also outlines terms related to public access and future improvements. Some of the planned improvements include installing synthetic turf, new field lights, an adjusted entryway, and field netting. These upgrades will be paid for with support from a $3 million state grant in addition to money contributed by the university and Salem Baseball LLC.

Nadene LeCheminant, a resident who lives near the park, spoke in opposition to the agreement. She expressed concern that the expansion of the baseball fields will primarily affect immigrant and refugee communities who utilize the park. 

“Most of Salem’s green space and parks are located in the wealthier areas of our city. Bush Park has become a refuge for families of color, and for families who really need free places for entertainment for their kids,” LeCheminant said. “When families plan large gatherings in Bush Park, they do need adjacent parking in order to make their gatherings work. If parking is monopolized by a commercial venture these families are essentially locked out of the public park.”

LeCheminant said she fears the baseball fields will dominate park usage because of inadequate parking. She recommended that certain parking areas be reserved for normal park usage during baseball games. 

Laurel Hines, a regular user of Bush Park, also spoke out against the agreement invoking the park’s namesake. 

Hines said the commercial baseball stadium near the park would threaten the camas lilies and young oak trees planted at the park. She is also concerned the stadium activity would chase out the park’s resident wildlife including Salem’s infamous angry dive-bombing owl

“If people could yell out something from the grave, I really believe Mr. Bush, who gave the park to the city would be yelling, ‘No!, not in my pasture park!’” Hines said. “Not with commercial baseball, not with beer concessions. That was not the intent.” 

After Hines spoke, Mayor Chris Hoy said her concerns were all valid but had one comment regarding the park’s namesake, Asahel Bush, the publisher of the Oregon Statesman newspaper and the man whose estate eventually was donated to the city to be used as a park in 1917. 

“I’m not sure about invoking what Mr. Bush may have said, if I understand the history of Mr. Bush, I’m sure he’d have a lot to say about the people who use the park, none of it good,” Hoy said. “The history isn’t great with him.” 

Bush is known for being a proponent of banning Black people from settling in Oregon, using his newspaper to push for racist policies, and to disparage the abolition movement and proponents of Black suffrage. 

Rob Romanek, the city’s parks planning manager, provided a presentation about the agreement to council prior to the final vote. He was later asked about the possibility of including an annual review of pedestrian impact on the park. 

“I think we can certainly include that,” Romanek said. “I’m sure staff would notice if…we saw more damage to park vegetation. On an observational level we would bring up those issues.”  

Rob Passage, the director of intercollegiate athletics at Willamette University, was one of the only people to speak in favor of the agreement and he will also be in charge of ensuring it is properly executed. 

Passage said he plans to continue assessing the parking situation at the park as the agreement moves forward. 

“I am open to those conversations. We are actively trying to look and see where the uses are. I think it is something that we need to continue to investigate,” Passage said. “That is one of the reasons I am happy to have that year review.” 

The council also capped off a grueling year of proposed budget cuts after unanimously passing the city’s $732 million budget for fiscal year 2025. The council also passed a supplementary budget to add roughly $2 million from emergency services fund to pay for emergency services it provided to assist Falck, the private company the city contracts with for emergency medical services.

Contact reporter Joe Siess: [email protected] or 503-335-7790.

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Joe Siess is a reporter for Salem Reporter. Joe joined Salem Reporter in 2024 and primarily covers city and county government but loves surprises. Joe previously reported for the Redmond Spokesman, the Bulletin in Bend, Klamath Falls Herald and News and the Malheur Enterprise. He was born in Independence, MO, where the Oregon Trail officially starts, and grew up in the Kansas City area.