Partnership with Louisville Slugger brings sports complex to the plate

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In 14-plus years running Eastside Center in East Peoria, Dan Cunningham has learned what it takes to stage top-notch softball tournaments to a multi-field complex that draw teams from all over the state and region.

That expertise landed him a new job starting the first of the year. As director of the Louisville Slugger Sports Complex planned for Peoria's northwest corner, Cunningham will oversee construction of the 10-field, indoor-outdoor complex while building from scratch a schedule of baseball and softball tournaments that could draw people from across the continent.

The complex, which will be operating within a year, plans to eventually host 11,000 competitive games each year, drawing more than a quarter million people to Peoria and using the Louisville Slugger brand to turn it into one of the country's top bat-and-ball venues.

"With the kind of brand recognition Louisville Slugger gives this project, we will have instantly credibility wherever we go," Cunningham said. "Already, we are hearing from tournament sponsors and the like, wanting to know more and wanting to get in line. We're excited."

The complex, which has been quietly in the planning stages for close to two years, is the brainchild of local businessman Mark Petersen, owner of Petersen Health Care and Petersen Hotels. Petersen approached Cunningham to tap his expertise about what it would take to make it work; that began a relationship that led to Louisville and a partnership in the $33 million project between Petersen and the world's top maker of baseball and softball bats.

"I knew for the project to work it would need more clout, somebody with a worldwide name. I approached Louisville Slugger because I had become aware they were starting to refocus on marketing diamond sports to families, to get America's youth interested in baseball again. And let's face it; will people be more apt to come and be in a tournament at the Peoria Sports Complex or the Louisville Slugger Sports Complex?

"We plan to make it an experience for the whole family," Cunningham said.

The complex will have 10 outdoor fields for softball and youth baseball, all sporting all-synthetic turf with significant drainage capabilities. Year-round play will be possible in the 125,000 square foot dome capable of holding multiple diamonds as well as fielding other sports.

The complex also will include a new Holiday Inn hotel to boost the number of rooms available in that part of the city, or what soon will be part of the city. The Peoria City Council next month will vote to annex the land on Orange Prairie Road, near the Shoppes at Grand Prairie. The council also is expected to establish a special service district that would include the complex, the new hotel and the other Petersen Hotels properties nearby on which a special tax would be levied to repay bonds the city is likely to issue.

City officials have been quoted saying the project should be a significant revenue generator for Peoria. It eventually could generate more than 50,000 hotel/motel room nights a year, Cunningham said.

It is obvious Louisville Slugger officials expect big things from the complex, which will be the first that company has been part of in the country.

"Our company has a long history of leaving its mark on baseball and softball," said Kyle Schlegel, Louisville Slugger's vice president of marketing, Kyle Schlegel. "Louisville Slugger is honored to join with the Peoria community in what will be one of the very best facilities of its kind in America. I assure you, this is not hyperbole. Peoria and the Louisville Slugger Sports Complex will become the new number-one destination for youth baseball and softball in the Midwest and, for many, the best in the nation."

The company said the complex is expected to draw a majority of participants from the 23 million people within 300 miles of Peoria. "However, the magnificent facility, entertaining family experience and stellar reputation of the Louisville Slugger brand are expected to also attract interest and participants from across North America," it said in a news release.

Schlegel said the company plans to emphasize memorable family experiences through diamond sports at the complex.

"We were sold on becoming partners when we learned of the dedication, commitment and experience of the team of people in Peoria that's been assembled to plan, develop and implement this amazing project, headed by the tireless Dan Cunningham," Schlegel said. "Dan and the Louisville Slugger Sports Complex intend to provide the very best sports experience possible for young athletes and their families."

The experience for players and families will include a big-league atmosphere with major-league, walk-out-style dugouts, bullpens, lights, electronic scoreboards and public address systems. Even the restrooms and concession areas will be special, Cunningham said. "They will be so clean every mother will be happy," he said.

Opening ceremonies will include a brilliant laser show and video welcome played on the ceiling of the dome. It is hoped the video will include message from people like Jim Thome, Joe Girardi and Ben Zobrist, all of whom started playing baseball in the Peoria region and made it to the Major Leagues. Thome recently retired after a Hall of Fame career with several teams, while Girardi was with many teams as a player and now is manager of the New York Yankees. Zobrist is an all-star infielder for the Tampa Bay Rays.

Louisville Slugger's branding and merchandise will be prominent. The 130-year-old company, supplier of equipment to players from Babe Ruth to Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente to Derek Jeter and Buster Posey, will create a Youth Hall of Fame section on its website that will feature every player who participates in tournaments at the Louisville Slugger Sports Complex. years to come. Also, every player in Louisville Slugger Hall of Fame events will receive a personalized Louisville Slugger bat as a keepsake.

The partnership agreement gives Louisville Slugger naming rights to the complex, use of the facility for special marketing events such as showcases and product demonstrations, and product merchandising, among other things. The parties also plan to cooperate on development of a Louisville Slugger smart phone application to promote events and provide information to players and their families.

Cunningham said it was quickly established that Louisville Slugger and Petersen had similar goals. "This is to be a youth complex, a place for youth to get an experience they can't get anywhere else. That's the message we all wanted. We want these participants to walk away from here not caring how many games they won or lost but thinking about the great experience they had, the great experience their family had," he said.

The dome will be up and operating next fall, Cunningham said, meaning it will be available for programming all next winter. The rest of the complex could be operational by the n but for sure by spring of 2015, he added. "A nice thing about using synthetic turf is that we won't have to wait for grass to grow," he said.

Cunningham finishes his duties in East Peoria, where he also is director of tourism and special events, on Dec. 31.

"Sure, I'll miss it and the people I have worked with. But this is something I couldn't turn down. Mark Petersen recruited me because he wanted somebody who didn't have a learning curve. But it is still going to be a whole new ballgame. I can't wait to really get going," he said.

About the Author
Paul Gordon is the editor of The Peorian after spending 29 years of indentured servitude at the Peoria Journal Star. He’s an award-winning writer, raconteur and song-and-dance man. He also went to a high school whose team name is the Alices (that’s Vincennes Lincoln High School in Indiana; you can look it up).