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NL's diamonds under pressure

NORTH LIBERTY– North Liberty’s comprehensive plan for developing its city parks has been in place since 2009, but increasing demand for organized recreation has kicked it into high gear.
The North Liberty City Council and the city’s parks and recreation commission met jointly last Thursday, Dec. 6, to talk about plans for two of the city’s major park spaces: one of the oldest of the community’s parks, and the newest to date.
This past August, the North Liberty Parks and Recreation Commission asked the council to consider constructing an additional baseball field in Penn Meadows Park, located on the east side of town. It’s the place the local Babe Ruth and North Liberty Youth Baseball and Softball (NLYBS) leagues have called home for many years, but growing demand for practice and game time on the fields and more requests from competitive leagues to hold tournaments here prompted recreation department director Shelly Simpson to ask if another larger, competition-size field could be added to the existing nine in Penn Meadows.
The request wasn’t exactly a home run; at that time, some council members were concerned about using up all of Penn Meadows’ green space for ball fields. Certain neighbors spoke against it, citing traffic and parking concerns, and some felt other sports were being overlooked in favor of a local baseball/softball monopoly. It set in motion a series of discussions that led to last week’s meeting and a game plan for moving forward on park development.
When city staff and the park commissioners began to study the needs of local leagues– and the city’s ability to meet them with existing space– a suggestion to build a complete baseball/softball complex on the west side of town began to gain ground. The city had already purchased 40 acres of land just off Jones Boulevard designated for park space, and $300,000 was projected into the city’s Capital Improvements Plan for its future development. For the next three months, city staff met with NLYBS and Babe Ruth organizers and pondered the big picture as to where its ball fields should be.
Ultimately, everyone landed back at home.
“It took us a while to get back to where we started,” said Mayor Tom Salm. “But it was good to have all these conversations.”
North Liberty city staff and those involved in the youth leagues came to a consensus that leaving the ball diamonds at Penn Meadows made the most sense. First, moving fields would require not just building new ones, but also removing old ones and replacing them with other park amenities, both expensive prospects. The estimated cost of building a single baseball field and equipping it with bleachers is around $65,000, according to documents prepared by city staff.
Second, most felt the west side park would be better suited for a wide range of uses, said city administrator Ryan Heiar. The new park could include shelters, a band shell, or even a splash pad, depending on how much the council would be willing to spend for amenities. The North Liberty Blues & BBQ committee has also been eyeing the west side park as a location for the blues event in 2013, as the open space in its former location by Liberty Centre Pond is seeing more commercial development.
“We’d like a park where we can hold community events,” said Heiar.
The council and parks commissioners generally concurred, supporting the staff’s recommendation to keep Penn Meadows as the city’s main ball complex and to expedite improvements to accommodate more teams and maximize field time.
Top priority was given to the city’s partnership with NLYBS.
“NLYBS is a partner with the city,” said Heiar. Though NLYBS is a separate, self-sustaining organization run by volunteers and funded independently of the city, the two entities have cooperated to provide baseball and softball to North Liberty youth for years. “Our policy is that NLYBS should have the majority of field time because they provide a service, and a league where everybody can play. It saves (the city) a substantial amount of money.”
However, certain improvements at Penn Meadows are necessary to assist NLYBS in meeting the demands of an ever-growing program.
The council directed Heiar to investigate costs for lighting some of the existing diamonds in Penn Meadows, which would extend the amount of available field time. In addition, the city’s list of near-term projects include building a concession stand with restrooms and storage, installing foul ball nets and shades on four existing diamonds, paving the trails connecting the park’s fields and expanding parking areas.
NLYBS organizer Cindy Hill said she was pleased with the level of collaboration the city has offered in recent months.
“Our relationship with the city has been great. We got to meet with them and talk through all of this before it came to the council, and it was wonderful,” said Hill. “We are just a volunteer organization, and it’s nice to know the city appreciates it and sees value in all the work we do.”
NLYBS, which provides organized recreational baseball opportunities to boys and girls ages 4 through 13, has grown to an annual registration of over 900 kids, with participation increasing every year. Also, NLYBS added a new fall ball fun league, which went from 45 participants last year to over 100 this year.
“We haven’t had to restrict registration yet, but sometimes, our T-ball teams have 16 players. We already practice two teams to a field,” Hill said. And sending them on to play Babe Ruth ball is an ongoing program objective, she added.
“When Babe Ruth grows, it shows we are doing our job,” Hill said. “We want them to love baseball and keep playing as long as possible.”
The city wants to keep the Babe Ruth league in action as well, though probably in a new location. Heiar was instructed to explore options for a new site for Babe Ruth’s larger diamond, perhaps even partnering with the Iowa City school district or the City of Coralville to share space and costs of construction.
Developing the new west side park for the broader community met with approval from both council and the commission as well.
“It’s a good spot for a park, it has good potential with the developing neighborhoods,” said council member Brian Wayson. “I think it would get used a lot.”
Councilors Coleen Chipman and Chris Hoffman both said it would be important to find out exactly how people would like to use it.
“My fear is to have too many of the details decided before the public has a chance to comment,” said Hoffman. Heiar replied that a substantial amount of public input was gathered during the creation of the city’s Comprehensive Parks Plan, and that data would be used as a basis for a concept plan for the new park. However, a public meeting will be scheduled to get feedback on the plan.
“Our next steps will include refining a concept plan, having open discussion at the park board level, sending it to council for feedback, and eventually holding an open house to have folks look at the concept and provide feedback,” said Heiar.