Sports

Sports Complex should make Peoria a destination

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baseball
dome1
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dan cunningham
jim ardis

P eoria is really known for two things: Caterpillar Inc. and the saying “Will it play in Peoria?” But what if this moderately sized city centered in the middle of the Midwest was known for having a top of the line sports complex?

There has been a need for such a complex in Peoria for a while, says Dan Cunningham, the manager of the proposed Louisville Slugger Sports Complex.

“I’ve been bringing in national groups for the past 14 years and trying to host big tournaments here,” said Cunningham, who managed EastSide Centre in East Peoria for 15 years. “The one issue has always been lack of facilities. With the exception of EastSide, there were no true softball or baseball facilities that could handle tournaments, etc.”

Off Orange Prairie Road in Peoria, 50-plus acres have been set aside for the new complex. There are plans for 10 fully synthetic turf fields; a 125,000 square-foot dome that will house two softball and little league baseball fields and a 20,000 square-foot, multi-purpose flooring area for two full-size basketball courts or four volleyball courts. There will also be space for lacrosse.

The facility is being aimed at various age groups. Because of their size, the baseball field will be targeted toward boys ages 8 to 12 and girls 8 or older. The other sporting areas will be useable for any age. An added feature of the center will be the ability to do multiple events at the same time, said Cunningham.

It was announced in December of last year that well-known baseball bat manufacturer Louisville Slugger would, along with local developer Mark Petersen, help fund the project, which will be called the Louisville Slugger Sports Complex.

In a press release on Slugger’s website, Kyle Schlegel, Slugger’s vice president of marketing, said the complex “would become the new number-one destination for youth baseball and softball in the Midwest and, for many, the best in the nation.”

Cunningham thinks it might even be a bigger deal than Schlegel suggests. Within just the first 10 days of 2014, Cunningham was hit with more than 100 requests from different national sports groups who are interested in using the complex. Based on the experience of similar sports centers in the country, Cunningham is confident the facility will see a wealth of international clients, as well.

“We’re talking a lot about how we create an experience that’s very different,” Schlegel said. “The kids will come and they’ll play their games just as they would anywhere else. But there’s a lot of things we want to surround them with. What can we do to make them love the experience while they’re on the field? What are all the things we could be doing when they’re off the field to help them really understand what it means to contribute on the field, what it means to contribute to their family [and] to their community? We think that there’s a lot more that we can achieve than just hosting baseball and softball games.”

One way the company wishes to create that experience is by bringing its museum, which is currently in Louisville, to the sports complex. It will not only teach people about the history of the organization but also the history of baseball, he said.

Parents and coaches are also being kept in mind. Slugger wants to make the experience great for them and wants to make the complex a place where they want to go, as well.

This is the first time Slugger has ever attempted anything like this, but Schlegel and Cunningham both believe the Louisville Slugger brand and Peoria’s connection with the rest of the Midwest will draw people in.

Other than creating around 12 to 16 full-time jobs and another 150 to 250 part-time jobs, Cunningham said the complex will fill 25 percent of the hotel rooms in the Peoria area during the prime summer months, which are usually the weakest months for hotels, and around 70,000 to 90,000 hotel room nights a year.

To help accommodate all these visitors, a Holiday Inn Conference Center is planned for across the street from the sports complex. The hotel will have around 120 rooms and an 8,000 to 10,000 square-foot conference center.

If the complex gets zoning approval from the city, Cunningham hopes to break ground and begin construction in March or April with the infrastructure done, the parking lot finished and the dome operational by late fall of this year.

The expectation is to have the hotel ready around that same time or a bit later, and the goal is to have the fields fully operational by spring 2015.

Despite all the possible economic benefits that could come from this venture and all the planning that has gone into it, the city of Peoria does not consider the sports complex to be a done deal. This may be good news to some who live in the Timberbrook subdivision, which is right next to the center’s site

Nearby residents have brought up numerous concerns regarding the effect the complex will have on the neighborhood’s quality of life. Some have voiced trepidations about the complex’s lighting and sound system possibly disturbing residents.

Cunningham was adamant that the center’s lighting, coming from the building and the parking lot, would not extend to the Timberbrook residences. The same goes for the sound system, which is designed to project the sound into the stadium area and not out of it, Cunningham says.

At a recent public meeting held at the North Branch Library, more points against the complex were heard by the city and those heading the project.

One resident was for the project but did not think the ramp at Interstate 474 and War Memorial Drive will be able to support the large numbers of people going to and from the complex; two others were worried about getting heavy traffic through the subdivision, which they think could put the homes and children at risk; and another, who recently moved into the neighborhood, was worried his property value would decrease and he would have a hard time selling his home in the future.

Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis is not too worried about the complex. He is sure the light, noise and any alcohol issues will be addressed. He also believes the area near Grand Prairie has developed a lot lately and thinks it will continue to do so.

“After the Shoppes at Grand Prairie were built out there, I think anybody that expected that area to remain residential except for the Shoppes of Grand Prairie was probably not…maybe they just weren’t thinking forward very far,” Ardis said.

“I don’t want to say it in a negative way to those people, but once the Shoppes came in, that area was destined to be more of a higher density use,” he added

While reaffirming the fact that the project is not a done deal, that it would go through all of the appropriate channels before approval and that all voiced concerns would be addressed, Ardis said he is confident the sports complex is going to happen.

“It’s not going to be something where everybody is going to be supportive, but I think overall, once people understand what this project is and what it isn’t, the community’s going to be very supportive of it,” Ardis said.