Renovated Cactus Yards puts Gilbert on track to compete for youth ball tourneys

The town is putting the final touches on the ballfields facility at Elliot District Park, opening Feb. 9. Rebranded as Cactus Yards, the former Big League Dreams facility still will feature eight replica Major League Baseball ballparks plus a soccer pavilion and batting cages. Source: Town of Gilbert/Community Impact Newspaper

The town is putting the final touches on the ballfields facility at Elliot District Park, opening Feb. 9. Rebranded as Cactus Yards, the former Big League Dreams facility still will feature eight replica Major League Baseball ballparks plus a soccer pavilion and batting cages. Source: Town of Gilbert/Community Impact Newspaper

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Gilbert prepares to compete for youth ball tourneys
Image description
Gilbert prepares to compete for youth ball tourneys
Image description
Gilbert prepares to compete for youth ball tourneys
Image description
Gilbert prepares to compete for youth ball tourneys
As construction crews put the finishing touches on the Cactus Yards renovations at Elliot District Park, Gilbert is preparing to see if it can balance the needs of a public entity with the costs of running a private-like business.

Cactus Yards, set to reopen Feb. 9, once was run by Big League Dreams USA, a sports park operator that uses scaled-down replicas of famous ballparks as a draw for teams and tournaments to use their facilities.

Now that the facility is under municipal control, it will include public parks and recreation department programming. But the nature and expense of the facility—with eight ballfields with the replica facades, an indoor soccer pavilion, batting cages, a playground and two restaurants—means the town will seek private tournament rentals.

Town officials have put in place a business plan, while acknowledging it may take a year to figure out how to best run Cactus Yards. Some officials and promoters have expressed concerns about the costs and the city’s ability to compete with other private rental spaces.

Still, town officials say the fields help fill a future need for ballfields. Furthermore, promoters say they are happy to have more field options available.

“We’re excited for February to get here, although we have a lot of work to do yet,” Recreation and Programming Manager John Kennedy said. “We’re excited to get the facility back open. We know that there’s so much pent-up demand.”

Business plan


The city closed Big League Dreams in July 2017 because of safety concerns, saying BLD had failed to properly maintain the facility. It cited crumbling concrete in the grandstands and improper anchoring of walls, making them susceptible to blowing over in a windstorm.

The town and BLD remain locked in litigation over the issue, but in the meantime, the town began refurbishing the facility with money collected in a settlement from the construction company.

Officials weighed the cost of the town running the facility and put together a business plan to address it.

The town is expecting to operate the facility to recover only about 51 percent of its expenses in the first year, operating with a net loss of more than $1.1 million, according to the business plan.

Officials estimate in that plan a cost of nearly $2.3 million annually in maintenance and recreation staffing and expenses to run the park.

Town officials estimate the facility could bring in $1.15 million annually from sports leagues and classes, field rentals and tournaments, restaurants and concession contracts, and running the batting cages.

Red flags


The operating deficit raised red flags for some Town Council members. Council Member Jared Taylor already had voiced concerns about the town operating like a private enterprise, but he said the projected losses were further alarming to him.

He called it a “failed business model,” given Big League Dreams’ experience. Mayor Jenn Daniels also used the term at a council meeting in August. But Daniels, at the time, noted the town had inherited the problem and needed to make the most of it.

“We own the facility, and we need to use it to its maximum capacity,” she said.

Kennedy and Facility Manager Dan Wilson said cost recovery will not end with field rentals or programming fees. Kennedy said the town is beginning to look at sponsorship opportunities. Wilson spoke of special event rentals for events such as weddings or corporate parties. The town also is considering a small retail space in the park’s administration building.

Interim Parks and Recreation Director Robert Carmona told council in August that he hopes the other funding streams can bring the cost recovery to about 70 percent in the future.

Pricing play


Deciding how much to charge for playing at Cactus Yards, considered a premium facility, proved to be a challenge, Kennedy said.

“There’s not a lot of direct comparables, other than other Big League Dreams facilities,” Kennedy said. “There are some places within the Valley, but they’re not exactly the same as far as having on-site restaurants [or] having the experience of replica stadiums.”

When setting rates the town factored in other municipalities’ rates, BLD's previous rates and council’s revenue generation goals, plus “the tough-to-define what-the-market-will bear” in coming up with its rates, Kennedy said.

The town plans to charge between $42-$55 per field per game depending on the sport and time of year. Rates fall to $25 in July and August but go to $75 on holiday weekends.

Competitors' prices


Parks in other municipalities charge less, particularly for softball.

“In girls fastpitch softball, I think they priced themselves out of the market,” Arizona USA Softball Commissioner Bobby Pena said.

“If they can lower it to $25 a game, now we’re competitive [with Phoenix and West Valley fields], and that’s on the high end.”

Pena and other promoters also noted Gilbert’s higher fees for field prep and maintenance. Gilbert published a $50 field prep fee per field.

Rick Perrault of Top Choice Baseball, which runs tournaments through U.S. Specialty Sports Association, said the maintenance fees could be a deal-breaker but added the town said it is willing to negotiate on the fee.

Perrault agreed the rental cost is high but said it is not out of line, given the facility's premium nature. Top Choice has rented the facility for five tournaments through May.

The town will, as BLD did, charge a gate entrance fee, Wilson said, though promoters said they try to avoid fields that charge gate fees.

But the fee only will be charged at private promoter events, not through the week at public events, as BLD did. The rate has not been set, but it is expected to be between $1 and $5. The business plan noted the fee was not factored into revenue estimates.

Need for fields


The fields help fill a need for Gilbert. The town found in a 2015 sports field assessment it needed an additional youth baseball field and three adult softball fields then, and it would need six youth baseball fields, three youth softball fields and two adult softball fields by build-out in 2030. Officials said Cactus Yards will help meet that need.

Perrault said BLD being closed hurt his organization in having enough quality fields for tournaments and hurt the region because his tournaments draw a number of out-of-state teams that book hotel rooms, eat at restaurants and fill gas tanks.

“I’m excited about it reopening,” he said. “I think it’s a positive move with the town taking over.”
By Tom Blodgett
Raised in Arizona, Tom Blodgett has spent 30 years in journalism in Arizona and is the editor of the Gilbert edition of Community Impact Newspaper. He is a graduate of Arizona State University, where he now serves as an instructional professional in the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and editorial adviser to The State Press, the university's independent student media outlet.


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