By Cecilia Chan, GSN Managing Editor
Cactus Yards is a big hit.
The town-owned sports facility that features eight scaled-down replicas of Major League baseball stadiums re-opened in February to much fanfare after closing for 1.5 years for safety fixes. Previously, Big League Dreams managed the complex for nine years until the town took over the operations with the re-launch.
“Whatever Gilbert has done it is amazing,” said Jed Chrisman, a coach for MBA Utah Grays, a youth baseball team that played a tournament at Cactus Yards in March.
“When I saw we were playing at Cactus Yards my initial impression was ‘Yikes.’ We’ve been to other Big League Dream Parks and we try to avoid them. The concessions are overpriced, staff usually is not friendly and the playing surfaces except for (Big League Dreams in) Chino Hills have never been close to being worth the time or to spend money to come to.”
But Chrisman, who played for the University of Utah’s Ute baseball team, said he noticed almost immediately at the entrance that the atmosphere was different from what he had expected.
“Staff was helpful and friendly and the playing surfaces were the best playing surface for youth baseball around,” said Chrisman, who’s been to many stadiums. “It was by far the best playing surface.”
The MBA Utah Grays was one of 331 teams from 13 states and two Canadian provinces that played six weekend tournaments at Cactus Yards since its Feb. 9 opening, according to John Kennedy, Recreation and Programming manager.
Of that number, 145 teams stayed overnight, resulting in 1,044 Gilbert hotel room nights, according to Kennedy.
“The thick outfield grass is what people are wowed by,” Kennedy told the Parks and Recreation Board at last week’s update on Cactus Yards from its opening to March 31.
The six private tournaments generated for the town $146,060, which came from field rentals, field preps and gate fees. Each tournament used four to seven baseball fields.
Gate fees charged during promoter-run tournaments on the weekends is $5 for 16 and older and free for Gilbert residents.
There were supposed to be seven weekends of tournaments, but the last weekend of February was rained out, Kennedy said.
Nonetheless, the 15 days of play brought in about 43,005 tournament attendees – about 3,000 per tournament, he added.
“We think these numbers are good but low,” said Kennedy, adding that staff was working on finding a better counting system.
He said 90 percent – or 40 of the 46 weekends – in 2019 were already reserved.
The facility also is seeing success with its adult and youth programming, according to Dan Wilson, recreation supervisor for Cactus Yards.
For adults, there’s softball, kickball and indoor-soccer leagues. So far 70 teams have signed up for softball, 28 for soccer and 18 for kickball, which is a new offering, Wilson said.
For youth, there’s sportball, baseball and indoor-soccer, which is super popular, with 160 kids participating in the first season, he added.
“I think that number is just going to keep growing as we go forward,” he said.
Miller said there will be four seasons this year and the goal is to get five to six seasons in a year, with each season running six to eight weeks long. But because Cactus Yards opened in February, it’s lost two months, he said.
There were 106 teams of 784 participants, which generated $131,168 in revenue, according to Wilson.
Cactus Yard’s batting cages also are being used, pulling in $4,000. The cost is $1 for 20 pitches.
Parks and Recreation Director Robert Carmona said Cactus Yards was right on track for performance numbers.
Town officials anticipated Gilbert will spend $2.3 million a year to operate the facility and take in $1.2 million in revenue, leaving a $1.1 million deficit.
It took Gilbert more than a year and $15 million in renovations to reach this point. On opening day, more than 3,500 people showed up, lining up an hour before the gates opened.
The $40 million taxpayer-funded facility debuted in 2008 but abruptly closed in 2017 after the town cited the immediate need to address structural deficiencies and construction defects.
Gilbert also severed all ties to Big League Dreams, claiming it failed to maintain the park leading to more repairs. The two sides are still embroiled in a lawsuit.
The latest action occurred on March 29 with Big League Dreams filing an opposition to the town’s motion for a protective order.
Gilbert also sued and won a $13.5 million settlement from M. A. Mortenson Co., the facility’s builder. The settlement was used to help cover the cost of repairs and renovations to the administration building, ballfields, dugout drainage, grandstand graphics and 20,000-square-foot field house.
“Concrete was the majority of the work that took place – all were torn out and replaced,” Kennedy said. “Eight hundred cement trucks were brought in.”
Cactus Yards’ two restaurants also got a $4 million facelift with Craft Culinary Concepts, contracted to operate Slider’s Sports Grill and Fieldhouse Grill, investing $250,000 into the two.
Kennedy showed before and after pictures of the fixes, which included patchwork grass at the field house that was replaced with new turf.
Staff said there were still some items they were addressing, including working with Craft Culinary on more consistent restaurant hours, which are currently based on the town’s programming, replacing controllers on some of the scoreboards and adding additional shade structures and more netting.
Finding part-time seasonal staffing was also a problem with people not showing up for interviews.
Carmona noted it was not just an issue for Cactus Yards but happening all over.
Chrisman said he can’t wait to return to Cactus Yards.
“We’re definitely coming back in March of next year,” he said. “The hardest part is to get down there. We are in Utah, the northern part, but we’re looking forward to the next tournament at Cactus Yards.”