Legacy to help buy baseball lights

February 7th, 2018

By Dave Gong | The Journal Gazette

Unlike Wrigley Field in days of yore, the new baseball diamonds at Fort Wayne's ASH Centre won't have to wait long for lights. 

In a 7-1 preliminary vote Tuesday, the Fort Wayne City Council approved a $600,000 grant from the Legacy Fund for lighting at the World Baseball Academy's new baseball fields. The approved funds will be used to pay for poles, fixtures and installation for the three diamonds at the ASH Centre, 1701 Freeman St., just west of downtown. The Legacy Fund consists of money generated by the lease and sale of Fort Wayne's old power utility.

“We have a beautiful asset, but it gets dark early in the spring and obviously can limit what we can do with this first-class asset,” World Baseball Academy CEO Caleb Kimmel said. “So this has been a big part of our capital campaign.”

The lighting will provide a safe environment for the kids who use the facility. High-quality lighting will also minimize spillover and light pollution for nearby neighbors, Kimmel said. Without lights, the World Baseball Academy would be able to use only 65 percent to 70 percent of its capacity. Lights are expected to be installed by August.

By contrast, Chicago's Wrigley Field didn't install lights until 1988, 74 years after it opened.

“Without lights, for the next 10 years, we lose about 2,000 games,” Kimmel said. “That's about 60,000 lost opportunities for kids to play the game of baseball in Fort Wayne, without lights for the next decade.”

Activities at the World Baseball Academy include tournaments, instruction classes, games and camps.

Tuesday's vote marked the end of a funding saga that began several years ago. A final vote next week is unlikely to change.

The project was approved for an $800,000 grant in November 2014 by the city's Legacy Joint Funding Committee. However, the organization withdrew its request shortly thereafter in light of increased focus on riverfront development. Over the intervening years, the World Baseball Academy was able to raise $2.8 million of its $3.4 million goal from other sources.

But the time lapse may have swayed some City Council members to change their minds and support the project in the end. That was certainly the case for Councilman John Crawford, R-at large. Crawford said his main concern when the initial request was approved included a lack of data about how the facility would sustain itself.

“I wasn't sure about your staying power, and I wasn't sure about what the real impact was going to be. Data is always the thing I go on, ... and I just didn't think I really had it then,” Crawford said. “But time has passed and it's actually given me a lot more clarity on your project. I've seen you raise $2.8 million on your own. I wouldn't have known that you could have done that several years ago.”

Crawford also said he's toured the facility and seen firsthand the improvements and has experienced the morale at the facility. 

“Enthusiasm is rampant out there,” Crawford said. “It hasn't diminished, if anything it's increased (since) I was there. I wasn't sure before, but I am now 100 percent sure this is a perfect use of Legacy Funds.” 

Councilman Paul Ensley, R-1st, was the only councilman present to vote against the request. Ensley said although he supports the project and its mission, he is concerned about the precedent set by approving a grant, rather than a loan from the Legacy Fund. Ensley also said he was hesitant to approve funding for the project, since the developers of the General Electric campus have said they will require $65 million in local funds for that project.

Councilman Russ Jehl, R-2nd, was present for the beginning of Tuesday's meeting but was not present for the vote due to a family matter.

“One of the promises that I made to my constituents, and I know several other councilmen made to their constituents as well, was to protect the corpus of the Legacy Fund,” Ensley said. “As part of that, we have really switched from doing grants to doing loans.” 

Kimmel said because of how the World Baseball Academy operates, a loan would not be ideal. 

“If we go and try to take out a loan to finish this, we might be able to pull it off. But if you know the business plan of youth amateur sports, there's not a lot of margin there,” Kimmel said.

“If we try to pull it off, we're going to be very, very much focused on dollars and cents. ... We cannot continue to be a community asset if we're bound by that kind of debt at this kind of facility.”