HELENA — The Helena City Commission will determine the next leasee of Kindrick Legion Field in the next 90 days.
The group set the timeline at its most recent meeting on Wednesday at the Civic Center.
The American Legion post in Helena, which features three baseball teams — the Senators, Reps and Independents — would like to absorb the totality of the lease at Kindrick Legion. Through this summer, Helena American Legion shares the lease with the departing Helena Brewers.
On the other end of the table is the Expedition League, a collegiate wood-bat summer league, which begins its inaugural season this month. The league already signed a lease in Butte at 3 Legends Stadium and hopes to have another team in Montana by the summer of 2019.
During the meeting, the city said part of American Legion’s proposal included adding a fourth team, but Helena American Legion general manager Greg Thornquist said that was not the case on Thursday.
Instead, his program seeks to add more field time at Kindrick Legion for his teams, primarily the Independents, as well as gain opportunities to host at least two more tournaments per summer.
The Independents are the lowest level American Legion team for the the program that features players in seventh, eighth and ninth grade.
“We share the field with the Brewers,” Thornquist said. “When we added Independents three years ago. There isn’t adequate field time for them to utilize the facility all the time.”
Cathy Burwell of the Chamber of Commerce spoke publicly at the meeting about the quality of life a professional team in Helena provided, drawing young families to the Queen City.
She said without a pro team, the chamber would look at economic impact from the new leasee, and the prospect of more high school baseball tournaments could be a boon for Helena.
It was noted the Brewers provided little economic value for the city.
The Independents were created three years ago and often times front-loaded their schedules to ensure time at the ballpark in Helena. Helena American Legion felt it could cover the cost of the entire lease, gaining revenue from outfield signage advertising and tournament revenue.
“I think our local kids deserve the ability to utilize Kindrick Legion Field,” Thornquist said.
Steve Wagner is the president of the Expedition League, which in its current iteration features eight teams set to compete this summer. The league’s developed over the past four years in the Dakotas, Wyoming and Nebraska.
Wagner said the league intends to operate like a minor league baseball team.
“You guys are familiar with all the fun, cool things you can do with a minor league baseball team and that’s what we’re all about,” Wagner said during a sit down with the Independent Record. “For us it’s about entertaining the fans with fun then it the fact there's baseball going on. Although the talent level is incredible because these kids are trying to break into the bigs.”
The group identified Helena as a fit after the Brewers announced their departure. As many fans wondered if another baseball team would set up shop in the capital city, Wagner’s league is attempting to do just that. Most Helenans are accustomed to summer nights with decent baseball locally.
An Expedition League team in Helena would bring 32 home games, with a team composed of college players from all around the country and perhaps the best local players. The team would emulate minor league baseball in a lot of ways and include five full-time staffers living in Helena, which Wagner said would positively impact the local economy. Wagner also believed a college team would ingrain itself further into the community than the Brewers had over the years.
Wagner also estimated a Helena-based Expedition League team could draw up to 1,500 people each game. The Brewers drew an average of 891 a season ago.
A hangup in the past with the Brewers and the city included renovations at Kindrick Legion, keeping the park up to minor league baseball standards without waivers.
Wagner said his group identified some areas of need at the park and would foot part of the bill.
“We would definitely partner with the other stakeholders as far as paying for those improvements,” Wagner said. “We’re ready and able to do that. We’re doing that in other communities.”
Wagner sought to bring college teams to parts of Montana where professional baseball was absent. It’s part of why the Expedition signed a lease in Butte and is looking to sign another in Bozeman, though Wagner felt that prospect was another few years away.
Under the current lease, the Brewers owned the majority of the signage in the outfield at the park with the American Legion receiving few spots. Wagner said his group would buy American Legion out of their signage.
Still, American Legion has reservations toward another team coming into Helena. Scheduling conflicts could arise. The Independents, Thornquist said, often received the short end of the deal when it came to schedule creation.
“We love Legion baseball,” Wagner said. “We never, ever want to come into a community and take anything away from them. We just want to use the ballpark with them. We really promote legion ball.”
Wagner, who played Legion baseball for five years, said his teams have worked with other American Legion teams across multiple states and found ways to may a schedule work, even those cases featuring four teams playing in the same ballpark. He presented a list of American Legion references that would vouch for the Expedition League's scheduling process.
“We let Legion do the scheduling and then we come in after that and prepare our schedule,” Wagner said. “It can be a little dicey in some places, but we worked it out. It worked well. The scheduling went fantastic this year.”
Over the next 90 days, American Legion and Expedition League will have a chance to draft a schedule and see if all the pieces could work.
Should the Expedition League be granted a lease at Kindrick Legion, Wagner said he has several interested owners ready to go.
First, the city will determine who gets the lease late this summer.