Supporters, doubters coming forward on sports complex proposal

By Mike Heine/The Week

(Published Jan. 14, 2007, 5:00 p.m.)

Public opinion varies over a Chicago sports marketing and TV production company's plan to bring a massive youth sports complex to Elkhorn by 2008.

Intersport wants to buy 250 acres of county-owned land on the east side of the city near the county complex to build up to 20 baseball diamonds, several soccer fields, four basketball gymnasiums, player dorms and possibly a minor league baseball stadium.

"The county is giving that land away at $3,000 per acre," Elkhorn's Phil Jones said of a proposed lease-to-buy agreement between Intersport and the county. "Any farmer, if they put it up for sale, would die to buy it at $8,000 to $10,000 (per acre).

"I think it's a good deal for people who are doing it, but I don't want them to come in and steal it from us."

County officials admit the price is below average market value, but Elkhorn's Brian Ogne said a sports complex will bring in additional tax revenue, create jobs and lead to more money coming into the community. He also said a sports complex "in my back yard" would be better than a garbage dump, prison or other ill-conceived development plan.

Supervisor Jim Van Dreser said the plan will benefit the county.

"If it does grow as projected, we should see our (county) income go up as well, so we should be able to make more as a county directly than we do now farming it," he said.

Others said the county would be crazy not to open its arms to Intersport's proposal, which came to the county this summer.

"What I see is nothing but a win-win for Elkhorn and Walworth County, starting with the people who own hotels and motels and then funneling to the restaurants, golf courses and all the other things Walworth County is known for," said Chris Aune, owner of Sperino's Little Italy restaurant and Monte Carlo Room banquet hall in Elkhorn.

The Intersport proposal was discussed at an open house Tuesday and by county board supervisors at two meetings later in the day. Tuesday night, the county board voted 14-11 to approve the concept plan.

Even family opinions varied on the proposal.

Sharilyn Smage and her 19-year-old daughter, Larissa, live on Bray Road. Their land abuts the property where Intersport wants to build.

Sharilyn isn't totally behind the plan, but said it's better than the alternatives, such as a massive residential development.

"I hope the county puts in some sort of clause to eliminate the potential for resale to less-desirable proposals," Sharilyn said. "I'm glad it'll be able to offer (positive) economic impacts."

Larissa is concerned about losing the tranquility of a horseback ride through the back of their farm.

"There will be no time to do that with the light pollution and sound pollution that might come with this complex," she said. She wonders if she'll be annoyed by music and announcers on the public address system throughout the summer when she comes home from college.

"Every time I come home it's more and more developed, which is scary," she added.

Intersport President of Baseball Operations Steve Colombo said reaction at an open house Tuesday afternoon at the Matheson Memorial Library in Elkhorn was mixed, but generally favorable among the 75-100 visitors.

"It seems as though the community understands the benefits to the community and the economic impacts that we'd be generating," Colombo said.

What others are saying about the Intersport proposal

SUPPORTERS

(In a letter to the county board)

"This is a good, wholesome proposal that is backed by a reputable company, which has done significant research. Through its network of sponsors and media friends, Intersport has the marketing horsepower to make this project succeed. Economic growth such as this will take pressure off the county to raise taxes by providing additional revenue that will help maintain, and even enhance, the quality of services that resident deserve. I believe this is a rare opportunity, and I hope you will vote to support it."

- Derek D'Auria, board president, Walworth County Visitors Bureau.

(In a letter to the county board)

"From the information provided to my office by the development proponents I would view this to be a nearly ideal development for the Elkhorn community, as well as for the broader Walworth County community. The proposed development is clearly consistent with the overall "tourism" element of the county's economy, and holds the prospect for substantial tax base enhancement without the downside service cost aspect associated with most forms of 'traditional' development."

- John Giese, mayor, city of Elkhorn

(In a letter to the county board)

"What Intersport is proposing to do is not very different from the goal I set out to do at (UW) Wisconsin. They aim to build a magnificent youth sports complex that will be nationally recognized and provide great benefit to both the city of Elkhorn and the county of Walworth. Not only will it bring tremendous economic impact and growth to the area, but it will also bring kids and families together from all over the country to compete in one of America's favorite sports."

- Pat Richter, emeritus director of athletics, University of Wisconsin and Intersport Champions Village Board of Advisers member

"Bottom line is this is an opportunity that very seriously needs to be looked at. The current situation is that by pursuing this opportunity, it gives the county an opportunity to have a hard look at some tourism-generated dollars. This is a good package."

- Fred Burkhardt, Walworth County Economic Development Alliance executive director

"I'm looking at a development that could come in that's full of green space that could bring in an economic impact. It's very exciting."

- Kathleen Seeberg, Walworth County Visitors Bureau executive director

"Elkhorn advertises itself as a 'hometown.' What better organization, what better type of group to come in than baseball to enhance the small town atmosphere of Elkhorn...

"I think we'd be foolish to pass this by. I've said this in the public works meeting. It's going to be like throwing a rock in a clear lake. There will be a big splash and the ripple effects will be felt for years to come."'

- Larry Hilbelink, Walworth County supervisor

OPPONENTS

My concept of it is this is a project that's going to benefit a few, but the taxpayers are going to have a burden until it's rolling. At what point it will contribute enough taxes to balance it out? My biggest thing is why don't they own it right up front?

- Bill Jacques, Elkhorn farmer

"I'm voting against it. All the contacts I've received, everyone that's gotten a hold of me in my district is totally against it. I'm against getting rid of any of our county property."

- Richard Kuhnke, Walworth County supervisor

"The concept of this sports complex I'm not against. I'm against the subsidizing of the financial arrangements. There's somewhat of a misconception about how much we're financing...

"We are holding the land in trust for the residents of Walworth County. It is not our land to give away. We never sponsored economic development to this tune.

"There are a number of facilities and programs in Walworth County that provide tourism dollars--the Walworth County Fair for instance. We have never subsidized them to this kind of effect.

"I also do not see any reason that we have to do anything with that land except continue to hold it. It's in production and providing a source of income for the county. It's open space land. It's agricultural land. I feel very reluctant to go forward with this."

- Nancy Russell, Walworth County supervisor

"I'm not in favor of this proposal in this lot. As far as the concept goes, it's a good concept, but the location is not ideal. This is our land. It's public land. We are giving away public land."

- Lis Friemoth, rural Burlington (town of Spring Prairie)



"I have not been provided with financial information from Intersport to feel confident that Intersport has the resources to follow through long range to make this a beneficial business for both the county and Intersport."

- Joe Guido, Walworth County supervisor

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