Big League Dreams General Manager Ed Farmer discusses the unexpected closure of the Gilbert ballpark.
In front of about 30 little leaguers, their parents and coaches, Big League Dreams staff and supporters announced Monday that Gilbert had no reason to shut down their facility earlier this month.
The town unexpectedly closed the eight-field ballpark, citing dangerous safety issues with the grandstands. According to the town, the park will remain closed for 12-18 months to complete the $11.6 million repairs.
Big League Dreams Gilbert, which operates the town-owned facility, said it had no warning the park would shutter until the day the town announced it to the public. The company is a subsidiary of a California-based company that operates 11 similar parks across the country.
The Big League Dreams owners called the town’s public safety concerns into question at a media event Monday. They said the company is asking the town to reconsider its complete closure of the park so they can continue serving youth in the community.
Public safety or a ‘hidden agenda’?
During a recent town inspection, a consultant found major deficiencies with the ballpark’s grandstands. The consultant said the conditions were “dangerous” and required repair or removal, according to documents obtained by The Arizona Republic through a public-records request.
The town got a second opinion from another engineer who confirmed the concerns, the town’s attorney Robert Grasso said in a statement.
The grandstands at the ballpark are decoration. No one sits on them or is allowed underneath them. They consist of plywood welded to the ground with metal and plastered with a giant decal to imitate the look and feel of a major-league ballpark, according to Big League Dreams co-owner Jeff Odekirk.
Odekirk said the town is concerned that a mighty gust of wind could send the wall toppling down onto a player going deep into the outfield to make a catch. He said he couldn’t imagine that actually occurring.
“I would allow my son to sleep under the stadium (wall) for a year, and I wouldn’t blink,” he said.
Odekirk said if he was allowed to bring in his own engineer, he expects they would find that the walls are “perfectly safe.”
United States Specialty Sports Association special projects director Doug Stark, who holds tournaments and events at the park, also disagreed with the town’s decision.
“Now I’m all for safety, but I can honestly tell you that since the park opened in 2008, rarely have I been concerned about a fence blowing down on top of someone,” Stark said.
He questioned if the town had a “hidden agenda” behind closing down Big League Dreams.
“Maybe they’re wrapping themselves in the buzz phrase ‘public safety’ as a way to shield themselves when maybe there’s a different endgame,” Stark said.
The town did not directly respond to Stark’s accusation, but Grasso said in a statement, “The town regrets any inconvenience that this may cause park users, however the safety of town residents and visitors is the town’s main priority.”
Was Big League Dreams blindsided?
According to court documents, Jacob Ellis, Gilbert assistant to the town manager, and Parks and Recreation Director Rod Buchanan told Big League Dreams Regional Manager Ed Farmer that the town was closing the park effective immediately at 9 a.m. on July 7.
Employees had just a few hours to collect belongings and store equipment before the town locked the grounds.
The closure announcement came just hours before a youth fast-pitch state tournament was set to begin at the park, Stark said.
“That’s catastrophic,” he said.
Big League Dreams staff said they had no idea the closure was coming.
But Gilbert notified the company in May about the safety issues and asked it to remedy them, Grasso said. When it did not, the town was forced to “take immediate action to protect the public” due to monsoon season.
Grasso also said the town had warned Big League Dreams for more than a year that it planned to close the park for repairs later this year. But according to court documents, that closure was slated for September, not July.
Farmer choked back tears during Monday’s event explaining the closure.
“This is affecting me and it’s affecting my family and it hurts. It’s affecting 87 employees that we have that I can’t tell whether or not they’re going to be able to make their car payment, feed their kids, make their house payment. I don’t have any information because all of a sudden the town of Gilbert came in, closed the park and threw us out,” Farmer said.
Will the park reopen?
Big League Dreams co-owner John Giambi said the company held a meeting with the town Monday morning, asking it to open a portion of the park during construction.
Giambi suggested the town close two fields at a time so games and tournaments could continue.
“It will be an inconvenience for both of us. It will be an inconvenience for the town, it will be an inconvenience for us,” he said. “But, the important part is that we’ll be able to do what we do, which is serve the community.”
The company also offered to put an additional fence around the grandstands to make sure no one got close to any potential danger.
Giambi said Big League Dreams hopes to bring in its own engineer in the next week to further drive its point about the lack of safety concerns.
But the town seems unwilling to consider a partial closure.
In a statement after the press conference, Grasso said, “the town has considered other options, including a partial closure to conduct repairs in phases. Unfortunately, the phased approach is prohibitively expensive and still presents an unacceptable safety risk to the public.”
In the meantime, the future of tournaments and games planned for the park is up in the air.
Jeremy Giambi, a former major-league ballplayer and son of co-owner John Giambi, said Big League Dreams means a lot to him and his family and hopes the town will allow the company back in soon.
“I don’t know what would have happened if I was younger and my little league field was taken away. I don’t know what would have happened. Might not have made the big leagues,” the younger Giambi said.
Gilbert resident Danielle York’s two young sons played at the field regularly until the closure. She said it left her family “heartbroken.”
“I don’t know what we are going to do,” she said.
York said Big League Dreams is the only facility of its kind in the East Valley. It has playgrounds and amenities for her daughter who doesn’t want to watch baseball and snacks and other amenities not offered at the average park.
She also questioned the safety concerns, saying she lets her daughter and nieces traipse around the park without concern.
“I have never felt unsafe. I have no idea what they’re even talking about with safety concerns,” York said.
The fight continues in court
While Big League Dreams made its case in the court of public opinion Monday, the company and Gilbert also are grappling in Maricopa County Superior Court about the future of the ballpark.
In April, Big League Dreams sued Gilbert. A few days later, the town sued Big League Dreams.
There are two major issues at hand: One is whether the town of Gilbert can completely close the ballpark. The other is who should pay for the $11.6 million in repairs.
Gilbert previously sued the ballpark’s developer, M.A. Mortenson and received a $13.5 million settlement. Big League Dreams thinks that money should be used for the repairs.
Gilbert says the repairs are Big League Dream’s responsibility because it failed to maintain the park, leading to the safety issues.
A judge has since combined the two suits and required both parties to try to resolve the issues through mediation.
If they can’t reach a resolution, litigation will ensue.
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