By Cecilia Chan, GSN Managing Editor
After millions of taxpayer dollars spent on repairs, a town-owned sports facility re-opens this weekend with a new name and a new operator.
Gilbert Parks and Recreation is now managing the facility renamed Cactus Yards. The town in 2017 severed all ties with former operator Big League Dreams on the grounds it failed to maintain the park leading to more needed repairs. The two sides were still embroiled in a lawsuit.
The town is preparing a big celebration next Saturday to mark the reopening of the venue.
“We anticipate 3,000 to 5,000 people over the course of the opening-day ceremonies,” said Robert Carmona, Parks and Recreation director.
The $40-million taxpayer-funded facility features scaled-down replicas of eight pro-baseball fields such as Fenway Park in Boston and Yankee Stadium in New York, a 20,000-square-foot indoor soccer pavilion and batting cages.
Construction defects that have plagued the facility since its January 2008 opening – including plywood outfield walls improperly installed and poor drainage – led the town to abruptly close the park in July 2017 for safety repairs.
During the shut-down, crews repaired structural deficiencies in the grandstand and brought stairways and handrails up to compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to Carmona.
The town approved a $12.8-million budget for that work as well as a $2.5-million maintenance-and-repair budget to address deficiencies and meet the needs of the operating plan, Carmona said.
Council in October approved spending $259,000 to buy and install artificial turf for the park’s soccer pavilion field and the six spin areas between the ballfields.
Other items include repairs and maintenance to the two clubhouse restaurants, administration building, fieldhouse, batting cages, ballfields, grandstand graphics, common areas, dugout drainage and parking lot, Carmona said.
“The actual expenses will come in about $500,000 under the budgeted amount,” Carmona said.
The town is using a $13.5-million settlement from M. A. Mortenson Co., the facility’s builder, to help cover the costs.
Repairs are not the only expense for Gilbert when it comes to the park.
Under the town’s business plan, it will cost Gilbert $2.3 million a year to operate the facility – $1.3 million for staffing and $950,000 for maintenance and programming.
Cactus Yards is anticipated to generate $1.2 million in annual revenue – $769,000 from programs, $280,000 from tournament and field rental fees for the baseball/softball fields, $65,000 from restaurant and concession contracts and $36,000 from the batting cages.
That leaves an annual budget shortfall of $1.1 million that the town will need to plug.
Cactus Yards is part of the town’s roster of parks and – as with other municipalities public parks – is considered to be generally subsidized by taxpayers.
The town has been trying to fill play time at the sports facility.
Currently, about 90 percent of the available weekends at Cactus Yards in 2019 are booked for tournaments, according to Carmona.
“Registration for the various soccer, softball, and kickball league play is ongoing and numbers are growing as the opening date nears,” he said. “There are leagues and activities planned throughout each day of the week.”
He added weekends will consist of either private, promoter-operated tournaments or town-sponsored tournaments.
Gilbert is heavily marketing the facility to potential users through means like social media – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Nextdoor, Carmona said.
Gilbert also has had discussions with several nationwide tournament promoters to bring local, regional and national tournaments to Cactus Yards, he said.
Promoters include USSSA Baseball, USSSA Softball Fastpitch, USSSA Softball Slowpitch, USA Softball, Athletx Sports Group, Baseball Showcase, Triple Crown Sports, 3v3 Live Soccer and American Cornhole Association, he said.
Access for residents – who are paying the facility’s bond debt and operation costs – will be based on availability.
“During daytime weekday hours, residents will have access to the facility, based on availability, for drop-in individual usage without needing to reserve,” Carmona said. “The coin-operated batting cages and playground also be available.”
Organized practices or games will need to make reservations and pay the appropriate rental fees, Carmona said. Access to the on-site restaurant, Sliders Sports Grill, also will be available.
Also, during the week the town won’t be charging a gate fee to enter the facility, he said. Previously, users 13 and older paid a $5 gate fee.
For private, promoter-operated tournaments on weekends, which may include select Fridays or Mondays, a gate fee will be charged, according to Carmona.
Cactus Yards will be used year-round with the first season focused on activities, including softball, baseball, soccer and and kickball, Carmona said.
“Other activities will be planned as trends emerge and community demand changes,” he said. “The town will also look to rent the space out for other special events as interests arise.”
Carmona said the department will always be looking for ways to optimize operations of the facility.
“The department will also always review opportunities to increase revenue and decrease operational costs through efficiency and proper maintenance,” he said.