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Dreams of a minor league baseball park in Windsor came closer to reality Wednesday after the Town Council initiated a study to determine if building a stadium makes economic sense.

While council members expressed excitement at the prospect of having a baseball stadium, they also told proponents of the ballpark that a public-private partnership is not guaranteed.

"The risk factor is one that has to be spelled out," said Mayor Sam Salmon. "It's a terrific project to look at in a feasibility study. We also have to go in with our eyes open."

If Windsor buys the land, entrepreneur Chris Lee of Kenwood said his group, Pacific Baseball Partners, will build a $10 million stadium. He estimates it would attract 275,000 to 320,000 people annually.

"I'm excited," said Councilwoman Robin Goble. "We're being courted, and I think we ought to pay attention to the opportunity."

But she said the key is to have a major league affiliation with a farm team.

"It needs to be part of something bigger that's successful," she said.

Following the meeting, Lee said he's not sure he even made it to first base with the Town Council. "I just dug into the batter's box," he said with a laugh after the council gave him the go-ahead to do a stadium feasibility study in conjunction with town officials. He estimated it will cost $25,000.

Councilwoman Debora Fudge said a ballpark fits with Windsor's image as a family-oriented community.

She said it could be a magnet for tourism and generate hotel stays. But on the negative side, she said it "doesn't provide a lot of jobs per acre."

And Fudge said she needs to see an economic analysis she can trust, along with assurances that a minor league team would stay in Windsor and not try to gain more concessions down the road by threatening to leave.

While Fudge said she was willing to move forward with a feasibility study paid for by proponents, she said "it isn't a blanket OK."

"This a huge leap of faith, something so big and expensive," she said.

Councilman Steve Allen said he also wants to make sure a stadium pencils out.

"I would have to be very confidant it's going to work," he said.

Lee said there are probably 200 minor league ballparks around the country and each is a different story.

"There are success stories and there are failures from the perspective of what municipalities put into the project and what they got out," he told the council. "There's nobody in baseball who wouldn't kill to be in Sonoma County."

"The real reason to do this is fun," he told council members. "Nowhere else can you go with the family and get along, and my 10-year-old feels like he owns the ballpark."

The business community was enthusiastic.

"This is the catalyst that could change the entire image of this town," said Gary Quackenbush, president and chief executive of the Windsor Chamber of Commerce.

He said Windsor is already noted for hosting athletic events such as triathlons and bicycle races.

"This town is into athletics, more than wine-tasting. This is why this would play," he said.

Quackenbush urged council members to consider a stadium site on the east side of town, but close to Highway 101, where it would be "a landmark and centerpiece for Windsor."

Fudge, however, expressed a preference for a site near the railroad to cut down on car trips and greenhouse gases.

Lee's group envisions buying one of the California League's Class A minor teams and moving it to Windsor at an estimated cost of $5 million.

He is asking Windsor to use its redevelopment agency to buy land for the stadium, saying that 8 to 10 acres is required along with another 8 to 10 acres for parking.

The redevelopment agency could potentially sell bonds to buy a site and pay them off with property tax proceeds from the development.

Town Manager Mike Mullan told The Press Democrat he is reluctant to identify potential sites for a stadium.

"A lot will go into whether you have a willing seller. If you don't, it can create other problems. Adjoining neighbors can get excited with something of that magnitude. You want it to come together in an organized fashion."

Financing will be important. The feasibility study, he said would help provide answers such as: "What is the return for the town? What is our investment? What sort of financial benefits might come out of that?"

In addition to evaluating potential sites, the town also wants more information on the regional and local marketplace for minor league baseball.

Town officials say there is a challenge involved in maintaining a stadium. While there would be rent proceeds presumably from teams using the stadium, that accounts for only four or five months of the year.

Proponents of the stadium said it could also be a venue for concerts and other community events.

Another proponent for a stadium in Windsor is Howard Leonhardt, chairman and founder of the recently launched Wine Country Baseball League.

He acknowledged that it has been challenging to get people to come out to watch at the various fields where his amateur games are played.

But he said a stadium like the one proposed in Windsor "would definitely increase attendance."

"It seems like a really good deal for the city," he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com.

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