By Jim Walsh
Gilbert’s stormy relationship with Big League Dreams has been headed for a nasty divorce since July, when the town unilaterally closed the sports park amid safety concerns about the integrity of outfield fences and faux grandstands.
Gilbert considers the divorce final now that the Town Council has terminated a memorandum of understanding with Big League Dreams, citing a lack of confidence in the company’s ability to operate the facility without damaging it after $14 million in repairs are completed.
But the operators of Big League Dreams say they are not ready to pack up their bats and balls and leave forever. They are appealing the case in court, attempting to get a permanent injunction that would force Gilbert to reopen the popular, yet much maligned, sports facility.
“We have terminated the marriage and we don’t want to make up,” said Robert Grasso, an attorney representing Gilbert in the lawsuits related to the sports park. “The town decided to independently terminate the contract. The town has lost confidence that Big League Dreams would run it in a responsible manner.”
Because Big League Dreams failed to perform maintenance as required by the contract, “we believe that Big League Dream’s approach disregards public safety,” he said.
Grasso said the memorandum of understanding with Big League Dreams, which dates back to 2005, was a maintenance and operation contract. He said in court records that Big League Dreams agreed to pay the town 6 percent of gross receipts but did not have a lease and did not have to pay rent or property taxes.
The brand new $40 million facility was turned over to Big League Dreams in late 2007 and opened in 2008. It attracted many tournaments but nowhere close to the projected revenues promised by Big League Dreams.
This arrangement essentially means that Big League Dreams acted as a vendor, until the town severed the agreement on Sept. 22.
Although it was on a much larger scale and far more money was involved, the business relationship really wasn’t any different than that of a homeowner who hires an exterminator to spray for bugs once a month, Grasso said.
“We’re comfortable with terminating the agreement,” an action that was possible even without a court ruling on the pending lawsuits, he said. “We’re dealing with a bunch of people who would destroy a multimillion-(dollar) facility.”
But Chuck Jelloian, a spokesman for Big League Dreams, accused the town of erecting a wall between the two parties and failing to negotiate in good faith. He said Big League Dreams still would like to see the park reopened, attracting tournament games as it did in the past and giving employees a source of income.
He said Gilbert ignored a report from an engineering consultant hired by Big League Dreams who disputed the town consultant’s conclusions that the outfield walls and the associated faux grandstands were dangerous.
The Big League Dreams concept is to make youth fields resemble iconic Major League Baseball stadiums, such as Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park.
“I thought those were extremely disingenuous comments by the mayor about our integrity,” Jelloian said. “We gave them a report and the town decides with one day’s notice to cancel that agreement.”
Jelloian said Big League Dreams, based in Southern California, has 11 facilities throughout the country and has never been treated in such a hostile manner as in Gilbert.
“If they think we are going to walk away from it, we’re not,” he said.
Big League Dreams court filings accuse the town of failing to adequately supervise the town-owned park’s construction. Faulty construction resulted in extensive repairs, with Gilbert completing $2 million in repairs and eventually winning a $14 million settlement of a lawsuit from M.A Mortenson and Co.
Big League Dreams claims the town owes it $148,831 to compensate for lost business during the initial repair phase, but the real breaking point occurred when the town decided to close the entire facility to complete a more extensive $13.8 million repair program that will take 12-18 months.
Big League Dreams wanted Gilbert to rotate the construction, only partially closing the complex, as it did in the past. Gilbert refused to do so, according to court records, saying such a plan would cost taxpayers an additional $5 million to $8 million and take an additional three years to complete.
“The town not only refused this request but refused to even meet to discuss this or other options,” according to a list of Big League Dreams claims against the town.
Grasso said he considers the dispute a legal argument about money only at this point. He already has notified a Maricopa County Superior Court judge that he has a schedule conflict with another court case on Nov. 14, the date on which the request for an injunction was scheduled for a hearing.
While Grasso believes it may take a couple of years of legal wrangling to settle the case, Gilbert Mayor Jenn Daniels wrote in an opinion piece provided by a spokeswoman that the town is planning to search for a new operator that would take over when the repairs are completed.