If you build it, they will come

Sports complex draws thousands in New York

By Mike Heine/The Week

(Published Dec. 20, 2006, 10:38 a.m.)

Baseball in our backyards?

It could be a reality if one Chicago company gets its wish to build a multi-diamond, multi-sport and multi-million-dollar complex off County NN on the outskirts of the city.

Intersport, a TV production and sports marketing company, launched an idea to build up to 16 baseball diamonds, indoor basketball gymnasiums, soccer fields and perhaps a minor league baseball stadium on 250 acres of county-owned land behind the county complex.

Plans call for a 2007 groundbreaking - if the concepts are approved by both the county and city of Elkhorn - and a 2008 opening.

"I would love to see something like that in my back yard work and succeed," said Paul Manriquez, Elkhorn Area High School varsity baseball coach. "Maybe it's something Wisconsin needs. I'll tell you, it's a big risk."

Retired Whitewater High School baseball coach Lynn Held, who led the Whippets to two state championships and a second place finish in his 22 years, thinks such a complex could work in Walworth County.

"If you have the right kind of people who are running the organization and doing it in a professional way, it could really go," Held said.

He added, "I'm always skeptical until I see more of it. I've heard of these things coming (elsewhere). I would be in favor of something like this coming in. It will help baseball and, in general, the whole area."

Home run hitter

The Upstate New York village of Cooperstown is home to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Cooperstown Dreams Park, a baseball-only facility that caters to youth teams from across the country.

In existence since 1996, the facility shares many of the features proposed by Intersport.

Cooperstown Dreams Park has 22 diamonds, 96 player cabins and hosts weeklong baseball tournaments for youth teams ages 12 and under.

Between 4,000 and 5,000 people are at the facility daily for a 12-week stretch in summer, said Mike Walter, chief financial officer and managing director of Cooperstown Dreams Park. About 1,500 players and coaches stay on the grounds each week while families and friends of the players stay at hotels and homes in town.

Intersport officials did not say how the "Intersport Championship Village" intended to turn profits, but Cooperstown Dreams Park makes most of its money from player fees and product sales.

The park charges $625 per player and coach per week, which includes lodging, three meals a day, uniforms, a commemorative ring, tickets to the Hall of Fame, personalized baseball cards and the chance to play championship-caliber youth baseball, Walter said.

"We're considered a camp. Think about what it costs a child to go to a camp for a week. Using that as a comparison, it is really reasonable," Walter said.

With 96 teams per week, 12 kids on a team and four coaches, Cooperstown Dreams Park makes close to $1 million per week for 12 weeks of summer, only on entry fees.

The facility also has a souvenir shop, sells concessions and has exclusive sponsorships with companies such as Pepsi, Reebok, Campbell's (soups), Heinz, Tyson Foods, Kodak, MasterCard and more.

Dreams Park employs about 375 seasonal employees, Walter said.

Effects on Cooperstown

Between the Hall of Fame, Cooperstown Dreams Park and other attractions, the village of Cooperstown, population 2,100, draws about 350,000 tourists annually, said Polly Renckens, local chamber of commerce executive director.

The baseball park has had a positive impact on the local economy with increased spending in shops, restaurants and hotels. Many homeowners rent their homes for $1,200 to $1,800 per week to families of ball players, added Deb Taylor, tourism director for Otsego County, N.Y.

"I cannot say enough about Dreams Park and the way they handle people and the experience kids have," Renckens said. "Everyone regards it as a glowing experience."

But the town has seen strain since its opening in 1996, particularly on infrastructure.

The two-lane highway to the facility becomes clogged and state troopers have to direct traffic during busy baseball times, Taylor said.

The added people in the community have put stresses on the village's water and sewer capacity and its ability to pick up garbage on a timely basis, Renckens said. There is also more cleaning to be done in public buildings and at parks. Come summertime, parking is at a premium, she added.

"Everyone has to make adjustments to their mindset," Renckens said of how locals deal with the added tourists. "They put off doing certain things until the off season."

Dreams Park and two smaller baseball parks in the vicinity have changed the fabric of the other tourist attractions in Cooperstown, too, Taylor said.

Since ball players and their families are staying for the week, most hotels in the area have a five-night minimum.

"It's harder for people who just want to come to see the other museums," Taylor said. "The main franchise hotels are sold out in the days after the teams are selected."

Cooperstown has always been linked to baseball - legend has it that the game was invented here-but more downtown stores have converted from more traditional shops to baseball - oriented storefronts, Renckens said.

"That has been perceived by village residents and some outside people as a bad thing," Renckens said. "There are many wonderful shops that are not baseball (related), but they are not front and center on Main Street anymore. But they are still thriving."

Is Elkhorn ready?

City Administrator Sam Tapson said such a complex could induce support industries, such as more restaurants and hotels.

"It doesn't have a whole lot of uglies attached to it. There are not a lot of bumps with this one," Tapson said. "It could lead to an expansion of the commercial base, which everyone says is sorely lacking."

While Elkhorn certainly feeds off the county's most popular tourist destinations-particularly the Geneva Lake area-it is not receive the same tourist traffic as the city of Lake Geneva in the busy weeks between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

That gap could narrow with such a facility.

"I don't think any operator of a store or business would see added traffic as a negative," Tapson said. "More people in line might be a frustration for those of us who are not accustomed to it."

If residents are clamoring for more commercial opportunities, they'll have to get over the initial discomfort and inconvenience of more people in town, Tapson said.

"Over time those sort of moderate and become more easily adjusted to," he said.

A youth sports complex could give Elkhorn a new identity.

"It might give an image to the community that's totally different than what it has been, and that could be positive," Tapson said. "It could give a whole new take on the community. It could give us a uniqueness that we don't have right now."

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