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Sports dome deal deflates in Keizer
Lava Dome sends blistering memo to Keizer officials alleging “highly unprofessional” behavior
Despite what seemed to be months of mutual enthusiasm for a startup nonprofit to build an all-weather, year-round youth sports complex in Keizer, Lava Dome has apparently walked away from partnering with city officials on the multi-stage, multi-million dollar project.
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In a message sent to Keizer elected officials in early August 2023, the Lava Dome team didn’t quietly walk away from the deal that had been brewing since late 2022. From the message (emphasis added):
“We have been compelled to reassess our plans due to the conduct exhibited by the Keizer City Council, which we and many of our supporters consider highly unprofessional.”
And that was just the first sentence. They continued (emphasis added):
“Moreover, the limitations outlined in the Letter of Intent have raised significant concerns, as they impede our ability to effectively manage and operate our own nonprofit. Over the past several months, despite an overwhelming wave of community support, we have learned that our mission of creating access, affordability, diversity, equity, and inclusion in youth softball and baseball do not align with the City of Keizer's current set of principles.”
Why is Lava Dome so heated? (sorry, I can’t help it)
There’s about 8 or 9 months of history between the City of Keizer and Lava Dome. Most of it seems to have been extremely positive - jovial, even.
On April 3, 2023, after months of working privately with Keizer City Manager Adam Brown after a chance meeting for a different project, the founders of Lava Dome were introduced to the public during a City Council meeting.
Lava Dome founders Jamie Hogland and Paige Zizzi, alongside Mickey Walker from “For the Love of the Game,” earned a warm welcome from Keizer City Council that day. For the Love of the Game is the company Keizer officials hired to operate the city’s youth baseball fields.
They laid out an ambitious plan - light on detail, but heavy on hope. The pair told council members they had already been shopping their idea around to the local business community with very positive feedback.
Hogland said they were hoping to break ground on the dome project at the existing Keizer Little League complex site in August 2023, with hopes of opening the following spring (2024). The pair explained they would raise $10 million to fund project construction to put four baseball fields under a dome, and that financial goal would be met before construction started. When asked how they planned on raising such a large amount so quickly - the Lava Dome team said they planned on tapping public grants and government grants.
And that’s just Phase 1. The Lava Dome team told council members Phase 2 would include building 4 or 5 outdoor fully turfed fields at the same youth baseball complex. Hogland said they would likely need to raise another $10 million for that phase, but didn’t have an official price tag for that project.
Hogland and Zizzi told councilors they’ve had conversations with Major League Baseball and the Seattle Mariners, along with other sports-related companies, and suggested interest in financially supporting the project was high.
Keizer Mayor Cathy Clark captured the mood of her City Council with an enthusiastic “Play Ball” after the Lava Dome folks completed their presentation.
So…where did things go wrong?
Simply put, Keizer City Council and the Lava Dome board of directors couldn’t agree on what should be included in a Letter of Intent - a non-binding, good-faith expression between the two parties that Lava Dome could use to assure potential funding sources they had a solid municipal partner.
The specific issue that seemed to rankle a few city council members was how Keizer players would be treated in the context of this new facility. In other words, they wanted to make sure Keizer players, teams, and leagues got preference when it came to using the indoor fields.
You can actually see the wheels on this deal start to wobble at the subsequent April 17, 2023, Keizer City Council meeting. Hogland and Zizzi from Lava Dome were back in front of council members, this time asking specifically for a signed LOI, or letter of intent.
The general mood of the council seemed to be, again, that access to these new fields should be weighted towards Keizer kids. But things start out amicably enough.
At one point during that mid-April City Council meeting, Keizer City Council President Shaney Starr requested that scholarship funds be reserved for Keizer youth in the LOI. The Lava Dome folks would not agree to that, arguing it would actually decrease accessibility and inclusiveness with respect to dome use if they had to reserve a bucket of scholarship funding for Keizer youth.
Council member Soraida Cross asked for clarification on what exactly a LOI is used for, and how descriptive this one needs to be to simply show support for the project.
City Attorney Shannon Johnson chimed in that the letter of intent was his idea, rather than dive into a formal agreement as initially proposed, because the deal was complex enough to warrant a slower, more deliberate pace. An interim LOI, of sorts.
With little additional deliberation, Council then adopted a resolution authorizing City Manager Brown and City Attorney Johnson to work with Lava Dome to develop an LOI for City Council approval.
Fast forward more than a month. Despite an emotional plea from Lava Dome board member (and former Kiezer City Council member) Marlene Parsons at the council’s June 5th meeting…the city and Lava Dome could just never get on the same page.
At that early June meeting, Keizer City Manager Brown described having meetings with Lava Dome and For the Love of the Game to discuss the substance of a non-binding LOI. They were ultimately “unable to come to an agreement on participation of local teams and their allowed use of the new facility,” Brown said.
Brown said Lava Dome communicated to them “local sports leagues would play outside on the hopefully improved artificial turf field and would only get use of the indoor facility if there were rain or inclement weather.”
He described that as the “last sticking point” preventing the LOI from moving forward.
And while Lava Dome board member Marlene Parsons was brought to tears expressing her commitment to local kids playing on those fields, Lava Dome was not prepared to actually put that in writing.
By the time Parsons was done, multiple City Councilors expressed displeasure with a range of issues from Lava Dome’s unwillingness to budge on Keizer team access to insufficient plans beyond Phase 1 to little insight in funding plans.
And two council members, Council President Starr and Councilor Soraida Cross, openly opposed supporting moving forward with the LOI with the current set of information.
Even still, the City Council asked the City Manager Brown and City Attorney Johnson to continue trying to develop an actual LOI that both parties were willing to sign.
Then in early August…Lava Dome sent Keizer City Councilors the equivalent of a Dear John letter:
To whom it may concern,
We have been compelled to reassess our plans due to the conduct exhibited by the Keizer City Council, which we and many of our supporters consider highly unprofessional. Moreover, the limitations outlined in the Letter of Intent have raised significant concerns, as they impede our ability to effectively manage and operate our own nonprofit. Over the past several months, despite an overwhelming wave of community support, we have learned that our mission of creating access, affordability, diversity, equity, and inclusion in youth softball and baseball do not align with the City of Keizer's current set of principles.
After thorough deliberation and careful consideration of these factors, our board has decided not to proceed any further with the City of Keizer regarding any current or future business or personal endeavors.
This decision is in the best interest of our organization and we remain committed to our mission and are looking forward to our current partnerships that align more closely with our objectives and ethics.
We sincerely wish the City of Keizer the best of luck,
The Lava Dome
So….what’s next for Lava Dome?
Who knows? Probably the people at Lava Dome know, hopefully.
But Parsons dropped an interesting nugget when she was fielding a line of increasingly tough questions from Council President Starr during the June 5 meeting. Starr referenced an email from Lava Dome where they referenced a “Plan B” should Keizer officials not back down on their requirements for the Letter of Intent (LOI).
“What’s plan B?” Starr asked.
“Salem,” Parsons said, to about 10 seconds of silence.
But Salem in June ain’t Salem in August.
Salem City Council recently ignited a region-wide scrap over a seemingly highly unpopular working class tax to shore up gigantic budget gaps. And they have a huge gamble playing out at the Salem Airport with millions in public funding bet on commercial air service.
And considering Lava Dome didn’t just part ways with Keizer, but made a seemingly unsupported claim Keizer officials were acting unprofessionally, and essentially flipped them off on the way out - it might be a tough sell for Lava Dome to pitch themselves as a positive community partner.
Salem-Keizer Proletariat wonders if the fact this company is called Lava Dome was some type of foreshadowing that they would burn bridges on their way out of town. Either way, SKP is entirely reader-supported local journalism. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.