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Jackrabbits, Kokomo Municipal Stadium, inching closer to debut

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In January, Kokomo Municipal Stadium seemed more destined for a wrecking ball than it did the sound of screaming fans.

The crack of a baseball bat on land overlooked by Wildcat Creek and historic Apperson Way, where legends Goose Ligon and Jimmy Rayl filled Memorial Gym across the street more than half a century ago, seemed but a pipe dream.

But just as the character Terence Mann, portrayed by James Earl Jones, said in the movie “Field of Dreams,” “This field, this game: it's a part of our past. … It reminds us of all that once was good, and could be again.”

A new era will be ushered six days from today, when the Kokomo Jackrabbits take to the turf of Kokomo Municipal Stadium to begin a fresh chapter in the City of Firsts’ sports history.

The issues that put the stadium’s future in peril are virtually a distant memory. But that wasn’t the case just a few months ago.

The Jackrabbits had a contingency plan had the stadium not been playable by May 30. They’ll never have to reveal what that was now.

“I really wouldn’t say it’s a relief,” said Dan Kuenzi, vice president of operations for MKE Sports and Entertainment, which owns the Jackrabbits. “I think all along we had confidence in the group here in Kokomo. We’re extremely excited to get this thing underway. We’ve got a good staff and a great team, and we’re anxious to throw out that first pitch.”

Why Kokomo?

Since creating MKE Sports and Entertainment in 2012, founder Mike Zimmerman has acquired the Milwaukee Wave, a professional indoor soccer team, and the Rockford Aviators, a Frontier League baseball team, as he began to expand his business.

He was looking to add another revenue stream in the way of a baseball team, but wound up adding two.

MKE created a team in Jamestown, New York, called the Jamestown Jammers after the previous Jammers franchise, a Single-A affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates, announced it was moving to West Virginia for the 2015 season.

Zimmerman had his eye on Kokomo after Mayor Greg Goodnight announced plans in May 2014 to build a new downtown baseball stadium as part of the city’s aggressive urban renewal agenda.

Zimmerman attended the David A. Kasey Memorial Youth Baseball Tournament championship game the following month, and was blown away by the attendance and atmosphere.

“Kokomo is a brand new market that loves baseball,” Zimmerman said. “It’s a brand new stadium. Obviously the city was willing to make the investment in the stadium, and that was pretty attractive to us. Frankly, it’s not too far from where our headquarters are. Those factors made it a no-brainer for us.”

The Prospect League

A 12-team summer, wooden-bat baseball league, which stretches from New York to Missouri using college players from all around the country, the Prospect League was created in 2008.

The league essentially formed as a combination of former Frontier League and Central Illinois Collegiate League teams.

Today, squads in the Prospect League include the Danville (Illinois) Dans, the Butler (Pennsylvania) Blue Sox, the Hannibal (Missouri) Cavemen, the Champion City Kings (Springfield, Ohio), the Kokomo Jackrabbits, the Chillicothe (Ohio) Paints, the Quincy (Illinois) Gems, the Jamestown (New York) Jammers, the Springfield (Illinois) Sliders, the Richmond (Indiana) RiverRats, the Terre Haute (Indiana) Rex, and the West Virginia Miners, located in Beckley.

Jackrabbits manager Greg Van Horn won a Prospect League title as a player with the Paints in 2010, and served as an assistant coach with the club last season.

“What makes the Prospect League great is the competition,” Van Horn said. “It’s as highly competitive of a summer league as you’re going to find. It’s right on par with all the other leagues like the New England Collegiate Baseball League, the Northwoods League and the Coastal Plains League. Those are the cream of the crop [summer college] leagues. The Prospect League has become just as good as those leagues. The only difference is you’re pulling kids mostly from the Midwest area. It’s a bunch of [NCAA] Division I guys, as well as high-level D-II and D-III guys.”

The Stadium

The city of Kokomo has owned most of the parcels of land in a rectangular area stretching from Union Street on the west to Apperson Way on the east, the Wildcat Creek to the north and Murden Street to the south since 1999.

The area had long been problematic due to flooding, and after the 2013 flood, the city announced plans to remove all the existing housing, and create, along with a new, $11 million stadium, a $2.5 million flood mitigation project in the area.

The idea for a new stadium was born the previous year. Western played in the IHSAA baseball semistate at CFD Investments Stadium in Highland Park, and the city received numerous complaints about the shortcomings of the ballpark’s amenities.

CFD Investments Stadium, which turns 60 this year, had its seating renovated in 1985, but falls short by today’s standards for handicap accessibility, as well as press, concession, restroom and locker room facilities.

As the city looked in 2013 at what it needed to address, along with investing in its parks, building two new fire stations and remodeling city hall, a committee, after considering renovating CFD Investments Stadium, opted to build a new ballpark.

Several areas of the city were considered for the new stadium, including Future Park, the old Continental Steel site, Jackson Morrow Park and a site near Markland and the new U.S. 31.

The city liked the appeal of a downtown stadium, and the area along Wildcat Creek between Union and Apperson was prime for a repurposing after tearing down the blighted homes in the neighborhood.

“We had some people suggest a park for that area, but the problem is Kokomo isn’t big enough to need three downtown, green space parks,” Goodnight said. “And with the flooding, it was a chance to marry up two projects.

“Any time you can take an area that’s challenged and make it into an asset, that was the goal and objective,” he added.

One of the major issues presented throughout the process of Kokomo Municipal Stadium’s construction has come in the form of a Kokomo lawsuit and an Indiana Department of Homeland Security countersuit – a situation that appears close to a resolution.

“We have resolved most of the issues related to the litigation now that the Indiana Senate has ended their session,” Goodnight said Thursday. “Our permeable sidewalks have been approved, the original turf plan was approved and the design option presented in January has been approved. There are just a couple of small issues still outstanding, but nothing that will impact the playing of baseball. I am proud of our city council and the baseball committee for standing steadfast through the construction.”

Also expressing a sense of optimism was IDHS spokesman John Erickson, who noted his department and the city are in “continuing and productive talks” to resolve the litigation issue.

Despite the positive attitude, however, Erickson did note that the eight parcels still need to be brought into compliance. It is imperative, he said, for the parcels to be fixed or “very close” before opening day.

“We are working toward that agreement, and the team being ready to play on opening day,” said Erickson. “They have taken the proper direction as far as what needs to happen to get the parcels into compliance and they are working on those actions. We’ve had continuing discussions and they are bringing those properties into compliance. Our goal is for there to be an opening day.”

On Jan. 26, city officials filed a lawsuit against both the IDHS and the department’s security executive director David Kane in an effort to seek “declarative and injunctive relief” pertaining to the IDHS’ order to stop construction on the city’s baseball stadium project.

The lawsuit - filed in the Marion County Environmental Court - states the IDHS’ refusal to “honor the City’s contractual right to build the facility in accordance with the terms agreed to by the parties” is inhibiting the city’s ability to complete the project.

“We have honored our agreement with IDHS and it is unfortunate that the city of Kokomo has to file this legal action,” Goodnight said at the time. “Kokomo Municipal Stadium is a catalyst for economic growth. Local high schools and the Prospect League Kokomo Jackrabbits will call it home. It is the center of nearly $40 million in investments, job creation and economic development. IDHS’ actions are big government overreach at its worst.”

For nearly three months – during which time the deadline for correction of the eight contested parcels had passed – IDHS chose not to respond to the city’s lawsuit. That changed on March 17, when IDHS filed a countersuit, asking the Marion County Environmental Court to make the city of Kokomo remove fill dirt on the eight parcels of land.

Also addressed by the IDHS in its countersuit was the presence of concrete support walls that construction crews had begun to build prior to the department’s approval.

“One of the other things I would say that’s been in this conversation all along is what the city of Kokomo was supposed to do originally was get approval for any changes to these properties prior to the beginning of construction,” Erickson said on March 18. “It isn’t something they can’t do in a passive way. ‘Unless we hear from you, we’re going to move forward.’ That isn’t how this works. They need to get specific approval.”

But those legal battles have significantly slowed the process to build the stadium, and as a result, some parts of it, such as the press box and main ticketing area, will not likely be done by the opening game Saturday, when Kokomo hosts Danville.

The seating area, playing surface and lights will be done in time, so baseball will be played May 30, but concessions will be outsourced for the first home stand because the proper permits were not able to be acquired in time.

“We don’t have a plan yet, but we have a week left,” Zimmerman said. “In areas like the press box or other areas that are looking questionable [to be complete], we’ll have a backup plan. What that is yet, we’re not sure, but our staff is coming up with contingency plans as we speak in the event that things like the press box won’t be ready.”

The park itself will feature 2,350 individual, flip-down stadium seats with the capacity to seat an additional 1,200 to 1,500 on the lawn. Each home stand for the team’s 30 home games will have an entertainment theme with the fans in mind.

Once the stadium is fully complete, a full-service concession stand will feature a diverse menu, including alcohol and to-your-seat delivery options. The stadium will also feature an umbrella bar with an outdoor brick patio, which will be stocked with a plethora of beers, both domestic and craft.

MKE is locked in to lease the stadium for five years, where it will maintain upkeep and pay the city a minimum of $22,500 in rent, with incentives that could raise that rent price to as much as $100,000 annually.

That’s all icing on the cake for the city. Goodnight said the stadium was never dreamed up with a Prospect League team in mind. Once the announcement was made, leagues made contact about using it, but that wasn’t the beginning goal. Giving the community a better facility was.

“These are the types of amenities that make your city a desirable place to live, and that’s the end game,” Goodnight said. “[Plus], they’re paying for it when the schools use it or there’s a tournament. The schools get the gate money, but MKE picks up the cost to run the stadium. There is no ongoing expense for the city.”

Economic impact

The Springfield (Ohio) News Sun reported in February its local tourism bureau estimated the Champion City Kings helped add $3 million to the local economy in its inaugural season in 2014.

The team averaged an attendance of nearly 600 people per game for its 30 home games last season in the city of just over 59,000 residents, just slightly larger than Kokomo.

“It will keep money here,” Goodnight said. “I like going to Indianapolis and Fort Wayne once or twice a year to watch baseball. It will keep money here and bring money into the economy, whether it’s visitors from other counties coming to games, or a small following from other cities in the league."

Zimmerman explained the Prospect League and MKE both have performed research that anticipates Kokomo will be one of the top markets in the league.

The potential economic impact includes employment opportunities added by the Jackrabbits’ presence, and all of the added spending in the community brought in by attendance and the travel of opposing teams, umpires and personnel from out of town.

The team has hired roughly 60 local people, including interns and part-time employees for the season after more than 250 applicants showed up for the job fair April 21.

“It was really difficult separating the talent when many of them were so close,” Kuenzi said. “There were many very qualified people from all aspects of baseball, concessions, marketing, and all the things that go into building a front office team.”

Zimmerman said research indicates this venture could bring between $3.3 million to $4.7 million additional funds into the local economy. Attendants, including ticket sales, spend an average of $34 when they come to the area for an event such as a baseball game.

“There are some that dispute that, but there are also quality-of-life benefits,” Zimmerman said. “It’s inexpensive family entertainment and the added enhancement of civic pride.”

The team

Van Horn arrived in Kokomo on Monday, and since then it’s been a whirlwind of excitement and work as he and his staff shift into high gear to get the season underway. He’s mixed in managerial duties with media requests and introductions, as well as appearances at local schools.

“It’s been way more than I ever could’ve expected,” Van Horn said. “The community has been great. You can already tell from the beginning how supportive they are, and how excited they are about the team.”

Van Horn was an assistant coach on the Princeton University staff. It was a rough road for the Tigers, who finished 7-32 this season, Van Horn’s first as an assistant on the staff.

He began his college baseball career at Princeton before finishing it at Wooster College in Ohio.

“It was tough from a wins and losses standpoint, but was a great experience as my first college coaching experience,” Van Horn said. “It was great to get that first season under your belt, but in making this transition, I’m excited to win some games. I joked with a couple people and said, ‘when we win our eighth game this season, we’re going to throw a little party.’”

Another hurdle for Van Horn to clear is building a blueprint for the Jackrabbits despite having seen few, if any, of his players play.

But team executives are confident the current roster is built to compete at a high level in the league. Van Horn expects the team to compete from the very beginning as well, and explained they have the same expectations as other teams despite the fact the Jackrabbits are an expansion team within the league.

With the nature of the players, college prospects, every team deals with a high level of turnover from year to year.

“You just have to throw the players out there from the very beginning and see what you’ve got,” he said. “The majority of the players come highly recommended from their college coaches. Within the first week or so, you’ll start to get a feel for what you have, and make decisions based on that going forward.”

Josh Sigler can be reached at 765-454-8580, by email at josh.sigler@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter @JSig_KT.

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