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New ball diamond not hitting home yet

NORTH LIBERTY– As North Liberty officials firmed up spending decisions for the upcoming fiscal year, the city’s Capital Improvements Plan (CIP) was the focus of discussion at a budget work session Tuesday, Jan. 31.
City Administrator Ryan Heiar asked for direction from the council on most CIP projects listed for FY13, including the purchase of a generator for the North Liberty Community Center, planned street improvement projects and whether or not to participate in a proposed regional animal shelter facility.
But the topic that got the most play was the future of youth baseball and softball in North Liberty.
The question facing the council now: should the city build a new ball field, set aside $350,000 for a concession stand at Penn Meadows Park, spend $300,000 to develop green space on the city’s west side for additional ball fields, approve a combination of both or do nothing at this time?
Last August, North Liberty recreation staff and the Parks & Recreation Commission suggested the city add a 10th ball diamond to Penn Meadows Park on the city’s east side to accommodate growing enrollment in the NLYBS (North Liberty Youth Baseball & Softball) community league, more practice time for teams and the ability to host weekend tournaments for older teams. NLYBS is not a city-sponsored program, but has developed a close working relationship with the city to offer baseball and softball opportunities for kids at the city’s parks, on mostly city-built diamonds. Koser Park and Quail Ridge Park each contain one ball field, while Penn Meadows currently has nine fields, all of which are designed for younger players.
The proposed 10th field, with an estimated price tag of $25,000, would be designed as a tournament-size field to bring in outside leagues seeking tournament locations, which could generate revenue for the city. Also proposed is a combined concession stand and restroom facility at Penn Meadows, which park and recreation board members and NLYBS representatives feel has been needed to accommodate the growing crowds during ball seasons for quite some time.
In August, the Parks & Recreation Commission deemed Penn Meadows the likeliest spot for a new field, but council members were not convinced. The two boards held joint meetings in September and October, and out of those collaborations came the idea to create an entirely new baseball/softball complex on the west side of Jones Boulevard, where the city has purchased 40 acres of land for future park development.
As of yet, it’s still just an idea, and no funds have been fully committed.
Council member Coleen Chipman approved of the concept, but wanted more information.
“I like having the ball parks moved to the west side, but [the city has] to phase it in, due to the expense,” said Chipman. She said she would like to see Penn Meadows be returned to a town park, where community events like Blues & BBQ or Fun Days can be hosted with adequate space. However, she added, she would like to see the cost of building a new complex using a phased construction plan before making any decisions.
Council member Chris Hoffman said he, too, would be in favor of a west-side ball complex.
“It just feels clumsy to keep adding to Penn Meadows,” Hoffman said, suggesting the city designate part of the west side park for ball diamonds, and proceed with careful planning of that facility with efficiency and future growth in mind, eventually moving all ball diamonds to the west side.
Other council members suggested keeping the existing diamonds at Penn Meadows and adding more fields to the west side park. Recreation Director Shelly Simpson came to the podium to say that most parents don’t like the inconvenience of having separate locations for multiple children who play ball. Also, Simpson noted, it would mean the added expense of building and maintaining concession stands and restroom facilities in both locations as well.
Mayor Salm changed direction of the discussion all together, saying the city had used the Comprehensive Park Plan to guide the decision to purchase the 40 acres on the west side and use it as a general park. Instead, Salm said, the council might consider purchasing a separate property on which to build a ball complex.
“I don’t think the idea was ever to eliminate everything at Penn Meadows,” said Salm. “It’s just that it was getting closed in [by ball fields], to the point it was taking the [other] uses away. The west side property we purchased to be a family park, and now we’re going to change it to a ball complex? I think if we’re going to do a whole ball complex and move everything, we need to look at a specific area and buy it as a ball park and not change the use midstream.”
Ultimately, the council directed Heiar to explore development of the west side park for future ball diamonds, and approved of leaving $300,000 in the FY13 budget as a placeholder for that line item.
“That money right now is proposed to be borrowed, if we do such a project,” Heiar noted. He said he would consult with Shive Hattery engineering staff and city staff before taking any further steps in the matter.
“There are clearly a number of different ways to do this, and we just need to bring back some options and have more discussion,” Heiar said.
The council deferred discussion of the Penn Meadows concession stand until they get more information on potential locations of future ball diamonds.