GREAT FALLS — The Great Falls City Commission voted to deny a request from the Great Falls Voyagers regarding rent forgiveness on Centene Stadium after the COVID-19 pandemic prevented the team from playing in 2020.
The motion failed 4-1 on Tuesday, with commissioner Owen Robinson voting in favor of forgiving. If approved, the motion would’ve cost the city $10,648 from its general fund.
In a letter to the city, Voyagers president Scott Reasoner said the club saw its revenue decline by more than 90 percent, and unlike many businesses, the Voyagers were prevented from operating at any capacity due to COVID-19. Reasoner also said Billings and Missoula forgave rent for their respective ball clubs, the Mustangs and Paddleheads.
In lieu of baseball, the Voyagers hosted numerous community events at Centene throughout the summer, including movie nights and kickball leagues. The stadium also played host to the Great Falls Chargers American Legion Baseball program.
"We did already forego an incredibly big discount for the Legion use of the stadium. We just did it as a small, per-game charge for some staff. It didn't cover our expenses, but we already passed along those savings to the Legion program that we use the stadium with," Reasoner said.
Mayor Bob Kelly suggested deferring payments over the next 10 years with no interest. The Voyagers are in a 50-year lease agreement with the city that started in 1996.
"I think it's an opportunity to show the community of Great Falls that we certainly are in alliance with them with the losses they've incurred. We do recognize the value of the baseball club," Kelly said. "But we have the ability to do something. As opposed to, we can't do it for everyone, but we can do it here. And the city would not have any lost revenue."
Commissioner Rick Tryon agreed, and other commissioners were concerned about setting a precedent for similar rental agreements. After the motion failed, Kelly gave direction to park and recreation director Steve Herrig and city manager Greg Doyon to work with the Voyagers on a different approach.
"We're not in a position to forgive the rents of people that are going out of business and people losing their jobs," Tryon said. "I think (Kelly's) proposal is very fair. Instead of forgiving it, we defer it and collect it over a 10-year period."
Before voting in favor, Robinson spoke to the symbolic importance the Voyagers hold in the community and said that forgiving the rent now would outweigh any recouped losses the city would get over the next decade.
"This is kind of a unique position, and there's not a lot of people who have this. I think having $1,000 a year for 10 years won't make a tinker's damn difference to the baseball club or to us," he said. "But I think if we forgave for this one year, a very special, unusual year, we could make a big impact on a very important business to Great Falls."