By Jim Walsh
The owners of Big League Dreams struck out with Gilbert on July 7, surprised by a knockdown pitch – an eviction order that temporarily put them out of business in the East Valley.
Realizing they are well behind in the game, with no revenues being generated at the facility for weeks, the venue’s California owners are now hoping for a comeback. They’re seeking at least a partial reopening of the complex while Gilbert undertakes some major renovations.
Whether a compromise can be worked out is uncertain. The two sides strongly disagree on the stadium’s safety.
Big League Dreams argues there is no threat to public safety, while Gilbert says two structural engineers found such an imminent threat that it was necessary to close the facility immediately.
The two sides have already sued each other, with the town seeking to terminate a long-term contract with Big League Dreams on grounds that the firm failed to maintain the facility as required.
Big League Dreams’ suit alleges the town failed to compensate the company for nearly $150,000 in business it lost when the facility was partially closed for a series of $2 million in “remedial” repairs paid by the town.
The town spent more than $40 million to build the complex and contracted with Big League Dreams to operate and maintain it. The arrangement quickly soured when an injury suffered by a visitor revealed millions of dollars in flawed construction work.
The town obtained a $13.5 million settlement with Mortenson Construction, which argued that a poor design by Big League Dreams and abuse of the facility contributed to the structural issues.
Gilbert had intended to start major repairs at the facility in September, but announced it had taken the unusual step of closing it down because of fears that outfield walls might collapse during monsoon storms and injure players or other visitors.
Big League Dreams’ owners met with town officials recently and were asked to put together a proposal aimed at reopening part of the facility. The owners said they want to open at least two of the facility’s eight baseball fields – and preferably up to six so they can still schedule tournaments.
Jeff Odekirk, one of the company’s founders, said he would like to make arrangements to have a structural engineer hired by the company inspect the facility and perform tests.
He said the company’s engineer has walked through the facility but needs additional access to perform the tests.
Odekirk said one major issue identified by the town engineer is that the wrong bolts were used in three of eight columns used to support outfield fences. The bolts have been encased in concrete for 10 years, he said, and there have been no problems.
“We are absolutely confident that the outfield walls are perfectly safe,” he said.
John Giambi – a co-owner of Big League Dreams and the father of two former major league players, Jeremy and Jason Giambi – blamed the dispute on communication problems between Big League Dreams and the town.
“We think if we can get the engineers to talk, they will come up with similar conclusions,” he said.
A press conference called by Big League Dreams in July resembled more of a rally by supporters, including children wearing baseball uniforms, their parents, coaches and Big League Dream employees who are out of work.
They all expressed doubt about the town’s assessment that the park poses an imminent safety threat.
The complex has eight replica baseball fields that are designed to resemble such iconic Major League Baseball stadiums as Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium. The complex also features an indoor soccer facility.
Big League Dreams bases its business on attracting youth baseball tournaments and adult softball tournaments.
Dale Cooper, who coaches in the program, said his club team played 65 games last year, competing in tournaments against teams from Canada, Minnesota and other cold places in the winter months.
The availability of a facility such as Big League Dreams makes it possible to run such an intensive program, he said.
Cooper estimates that about two-thirds of his teams’ games will be lost because of the closure.
“Essentially, it’s killing baseball and it’s breaking my heart,” Cooper said.
Cooper said he never perceived a risk when he coached at Big League Dreams, but said he was there to play ball and is a teacher, not an engineer.
He said he is not qualified to determine if a safety risk exists.
Robert Grasso, an attorney for the town, said that the town considered doing repairs in phases, the same policy it used in Phase 1 of emergency repairs after the flawed construction was discovered in 2011, but that the cost was prohibitively expensive.
He said the safety issues are a real threat, despite what Big League Dreams says, and he called it “shameful” that Big League Dreams is using children to further its business interests when the town’s primary interest in closing down the facility was to protect children.
Grasso’s suit against Big League Dreams says that Phase II of the renovations will take 15 months to complete and that the facility needs to remain closed. If the work was completed in phases as Big League Dreams requests, the repairs would take two-and-a-half to three years and cost an additional $5 million-$8 million.
“The town is not going to force the taxpayers to pay millions of dollars more and expose the public to safety risks,” Grasso said. “The answer is ‘no.’”
“The town of Gilbert is wearing the white hat here,” Grasso said. “The town has reports from two separate structural engineers saying this is dangerous and unsafe.”
Grasso said that the town is dedicated to getting the repairs completed as quickly as possible, but that ensuring safe conditions is the number one priority.
He said it is possible that Big League Dreams will never manage the facility again, depending upon the outcome of the suit.
“We are not going to invest millions of dollars and give them the keys so they can destroy it again,” Grasso said.
Grasso accuses Big League Dreams of being responsible for $4 million in damages to the complex because of its failure to perform maintenance required under the contract.
Michael Van, an attorney for Big League Dreams, said that mediation is scheduled in an attempt to settle the two suits on Aug. 15-17.
“This is not the way we wanted it to go,” Odekirk said. “We hope there is an amicable resolution.”