A Calculated Pitch

A Civic Center conference room is packed on a steamy Wednesday night — so crowded close to 20 spectators have spilled into the hallway. In a half hour, that number grows to 40. People distribute “Stop Nature Abuse: Save Wesselman Park” stickers; a woman holds a sign reading “Anywhere Else Please!” They’re there to see the presentation given by the Evansville Convention & Visitors Bureau to the Board of Park Commissioners.

So loud is the opposition, it’s hard to hear the reason for the meeting: to inform Evansvillians of The Park, a CVB-proposed baseball and softball complex and recreation area that will sit where Roberts Stadium, which will become vacant upon completion of a new Downtown arena in late 2011, and its parking lot now stand. The meeting offers full disclosure on the estimated $18 million project that will boast eight ball fields for tournament and community use and include renovations to all existing basketball, handball, and sand volleyball courts at Wesselman Park as well as improvements to the playground and walking and biking trails.

The meeting shows Evansville has a rare opportunity in the Roberts Stadium and Wesselman Park property, says David Dunn, a longtime member of the CVB board: “If we develop here, it will be one of the most unique complexes in the nation.” The CVB has named the site its top choice for several reasons; its proximity to retailers and amenities, they say, will help stimulate an estimated $10 million in spending each year and appeal to tournament visitors. Plus, the site provides a chance to fuse the complex with an already family-friendly park as well as improve existing recreational facilities, some of which — as pictures from the presentation demonstrated — regrettably are in need of a facelift: basketball backboards without rims, broken bleachers, ripped fences, and inoperable batting cages.

The well-attended Sept. 15 gathering was at once successful, stressful, and timely. In an effort to make all aspects of the project transparent, the CVB brought in experts to discuss the proposed park’s light, traffic, water, and noise consequences. Among the speakers were Patrick Robinson, a lighting engineering specialist with Iowa-based Musco Lighting; Doye Cox, an environmental noise consultant with Barge, Waggoner, Sumner, & Cannon in Tennessee; Rusty Yeager, a noise specialist with Evansville’s Bernardin, Lochmueller & Associates (BLA); Keith Lochmueller, CEO and traffic planner with BLA; Jim Farny, a lead civil engineer with BLA; Jeremy Kieffner, a wetland biologist with BLA; Tom Cervone, a project environmental lead principal with BLA; and Kevin Eastridge, an owner, principle broker, and president with F.C. Tucker Emge Realtors. They said the statistics show the environmental impact on the area will remain neutral and even lessen in some respects.

Some view the meeting as means to voice confusion — “It’s too technical,” one man says — but many who approach the microphone to address the CVB say they still cannot help feeling left out of the process. One woman questions the CVB’s judgment. Why not an aquarium? Or an expansion of the green space Wesselman Park offers? Why not just leave Roberts Stadium as it is?

Developing the Project

Six years ago, before plans for the Downtown arena had surfaced, the CVB contemplated its next big project and tried to answer these same questions. “What we realized,” says Dunn, “was the lack of attractions in Vanderburgh County causing people to make a conscious decision to not come to our community.”

The board held public forums and considered numerous possibilities — from building an aquarium to an indoor swimming pool to creating a Riverwalk along Main Street. With the aid of a consultant, the board found the most promising prospect in youth sports, specifically baseball and softball. Dunn and other members paid visits to cities in the region with similar facilities — Owensboro, Ky.; Bloomington, Ind.; Memphis, Tenn.; and Birmingham, Ala.; to name a few — and surveyed the results. “I’ve visited so many complexes that I can’t even remember them all,” Dunn says. “But the story’s all the same. They’re flourishing.”[pagebreak]

One such park, the more than $12 million Summit of Softball Complex in Chattanooga, Tenn., has had a warm reception since its completion last year; a recent national softball tournament held there brought in $3 million in tax revenue, giving the city a boost. “It’s been absolutely fabulous,” says Matt Stovall, a landscape architect whose engineering firm, Barge, Waggoner, Sumner & Cannon, handled that project and will be assigned to execute The Park if the proposal passes. Coming from a city that has seen successful and smooth development — “I’ve never had any opposition to any of our park projects,” he says — Stovall is puzzled by the resistance to The Park. “I think it’s going to be a great asset for the community,” he says.

As part of its plan, the CVB will cover the estimated $1.5 million needed to tear down Roberts Stadium and remove the 28 acres of asphalt once the transition to the Downtown arena is complete. The CVB will fund the construction and maintenance of The Park through the innkeeper’s tax at no burden to personal property taxpayers.

Environmental Impact

But what worked in Chattanooga might be another story for Evansville, as Dunn and the CVB have recognized. The location of the potential complex is at once ideal and problematic. Residents on Boeke Road, which borders Wesselman Park’s west side, have voiced concerns about how the light, noise, and traffic generated by an eight ball field complex will affect their quality of life after Roberts Stadium — a venue with more than 50 years of memories — is replaced.

Perhaps the fiercest criticism comes from those concerned about the impact to Wesselman Park and specifically the 200-acre Wesselman Woods Nature Preserve, a nationally recognized landmark and sanctuary for trees and wildlife. The urban forest, which includes more than six miles of walking trails and trees estimated to be nearly 300 years old, is federally protected and will not be touched. Still, preserve supporters consider it a commodity too precious to take lightly. “We’re so cautious with the woods because you can’t get another one,” says Gil Himebaugh, president of the Wesselman Nature Society’s board of directors. “It’s there and it’s valuable and it’s irreplaceable.”

These issues are what make the numbers — though tedious — matter most. The CVB’s environmental impact studies reveal that replacing the 1970s-era field lighting with a sophisticated system will generate nearly three times as much light on the field and significantly reduce spill light and glare on Wesselman Woods and homes on Boeke Road. As for potential noise created by tournament play, consultants predict that on average, levels will remain the same, thanks in part to a user-friendly public-address system that will not exceed a set decibel level. Traffic noise stands to decrease at least 10 decibels when comparing tournament traffic noise to that generated by large events at Roberts Stadium. And surface runoff caused by the 28.4 acres of parking lot will drop considerably with The Park’s additional green space and rain gardens that help retain storm water.

The plan calls to add 316 trees, which means nine new trees will be added for every one removed. And Dunn insists that the complex only can improve the property value of homes along Boeke Road. “Hopefully, we’ve been able to demonstrate that the impact to them will be positive,” he says.

Himebaugh says that the study results eased his apprehensions about the future of the preserve. “Since we have facts to deal with now, we can more accurately say that we see no damage to the woods greater than what already exists,” he says, adding that the Wesselman Nature Society has no place to comment on the merits of the complex itself. “This has been a frustration even among our members. They want us to take a position on the ball fields,” he says. “We can’t do that … It’s almost a neutral position, but it’s as good as we can do.”

Richard Vernier of the Evansville Audubon Society — a conservation group that also looks after the well-being of the preserve — says that although many members would prefer picnic space to ballpark space, he’s “favorable” toward the proposal. “This is not bad because they’ve taken into consideration a lot of the concerns that we had,” he says of the CVB’s efforts.[pagebreak]

An early version of the proposal, for example, called for a practice area for players in proximity to the woods. Supporters of the preserve concerned about excessive noise spoke up, and the CVB changed the space to a gathering area. The CVB made another compromise in agreeing to distance the new basketball courts from the Good Samaritan Home, a long-term care facility near the current entrance to Wesselman Park. “The CVB has been very cooperative about making the changes that have been suggested,” Himebaugh says.

Budget Concerns & Economic Effect

At the meeting, the crowd claps in agreement as Parks Board president Steve Bohleber expresses his concerns about the project’s “astronomical” $18 million price tag. Board member Jay Ritter has a similar worry. “Looks to me like we’re betting the house that this will work,” he says. The product is worth the cost, Dunn believes. “Because of the degree of quality we want to maintain with this project,” he says, “it does require a majority of that revenue stream to pay down that debt.”

The CVB, which has spent $8.5 million on smaller community projects in recent years, thinks such an investment will be worth it. Based on benchmark studies of hotel and industry revenue generated from similar projects, the CVB believes that the complex will deliver a big payoff, bringing significant and direct returns to the local economy to the tune of at least $10 million per year. And the boost tournament visitors provide to retailers, hotels, and restaurants will have a positive, though gradual, ripple effect throughout the community. The complex’s potential as an “economic engine,” Dunn says, helps justify its price tag, which the CVB promises cannot and will not exceed $18 million. “There’s no question: $18 million sounds like a lot of money,” Dunn says. “It is a lot of money.” But with that sum, the CVB aims to create a high quality and competitive attraction that, if successful, will set the standard for development in the area as “a catalyst for future improvements.”

Still, a makeshift, grassroots organization, the Wesselman Park Support Group, routinely posts letters and notes on its webpage, www.wesselmanparksupportgroup.org, that suggest “the ball complex is purely commercial” — a tourism cash cow for the city and a facility enjoyed primarily by visitors who leave Evansville just as quickly as they arrive.

“That is the furthest thing from the truth,” Dunn says. “There’s no question that there is an economic benefit to this development. However, the majority of play is going to be enjoyed by the locals, and it’s a public park.” Tournaments will take place on weekends, he says, while adult and youth leagues and all community residents will have access during the workweek. “When you look at who’s going to use this park,” Dunn says, “it really is the community that will be the main benefactor.”

Sherman Stevens, the head organizer for the Wesselman Park Support Group, opposes the current proposed location and declined to be interviewed for this article. But in a letter posted in response to the Sept. 15 meeting on the group’s website, the price tag is one chief concern: “There are great differences between needs and wants, especially in these economic times, and it is not hard to make a list of needs that Evansville has, even within the context of tourism and conventions, that should come before these commercial baseball fields.”

What’s Next

The project is no guarantee just yet. Standard procedure for developments of this kind requires the Board of Park Commissioners to first agree to lease the property. Then, the CVB will look to the county council, county commission, county redevelopment commission, and area planning commission for approval. If the proposal passes, the CVB hopes to break ground on the project in late summer 2011 and begin work on the Roberts Stadium campus in November, when the city has plans to make a full transition to the Downtown arena.

Until then, Dunn says the CVB must keep returning to fundamental questions and doubts community members continue to express: Does the community truly want this park? Does its location and purpose make sense for Evansville? “If it doesn’t, those are the wishes of the community. While we would strongly disagree with it, we would accept it. And if it does,” Dunn says, “we’re ready to move forward.”

For More on The Park
To view studies and presentations about the proposed sports and recreation complex, ask questions, provide feedback, and review frequently asked questions, visit www.theparkevansville.com, a website maintained by the Evansville Convention & Visitors Bureau.

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