By Jim Walsh GSN Staff Writer
The tattered flags above the scoreboard at Gilbert’s version of Wrigley Field were blowing out, a welcome sight for hitters and a nightmare for pitchers, just like the real thing in Chicago.
But the unmistakable thud of a ball hitting a bat was absent, as was the joyful sound of children at play. The most dominant feature at Gilbert’s Elliot District Park on this quiet afternoon was a six-foot-tall chain-link fence and a sign notifying visitors that the complex of replica major league fields and stadiums was closed for repairs.
It’s going to stay that way for awhile as Gilbert attempts to somehow awaken from its pseudo-major league baseball nightmare, rebuilding a complex that cost $40 million only 10 years ago.
That nightmare has included major construction flaws almost from the time the venue opened, a longstanding payment dispute with a California chain of baseball-themed sports parks, the venue’s sudden shutdown a year ago this month and a protracted lawsuit.
Nevertheless, Gilbert is committed to staging a dramatic ninth-inning comeback for the sports park near Elliot and Power roads.
While Gilbert’s children can still dream about playing in the big leagues, it’s clear they won’t be playing anymore at a park called Big League Dreams.
Workers are repairing the structural damage at the now-renamed Elliot District Park while lawyers battle over who will pay the bill.
Gilbert already has obtained a $13.5 million settlement from Mortenson Co., the park’s builder, to partially cover construction defects that have plagued the facility since it opened in 2008.
The Gilbert Town Council recently approved hiring Haydon Building Corporation to complete a $9.6 million contract for repairs, using funds earmarked from the Mortenson settlement. The Council since has approved two change orders upping that contract to over $10.6 million.
The Council later approved the use of $2,656,560 from the general fund and other sources to partially fund maintenance and repairs.
While the contract represents progress toward renovating the facility, the actual cost of reconstruction may be double that of the Mortenson settlement, said Robert Grasso, the town’s attorney.
Grasso said the true cost will not be known until the construction project progresses.
He said nothing in the suit would allow Big League Dreams – a California chain that builds replica stadiums to look like iconic baseball stadiums – to operate the Gilbert facility again.
Grasso said the town would not pay millions to repair the crumbling park, only to turn it over to Big League Dreams, for fear their lack of maintenance would destroy it again.
The only remaining issue is whether Gilbert will succeed in sticking Big League Dreams with a large bill for the repairs, saying that violations of their operations agreement contributed to the damage.
“They’re done. All the litigation is going to focus on is who owes who what,’’ Grasso said. The repair bill, no matter who pays, is “going to be significantly more than what we recovered in the Mortenson litigation.’’
He said Gilbert is committed to turning around the park, which is scheduled to re-open in early 2019.
The current construction timeline has maintenance and repairs scheduled to begin in October. The town expects the repairs to be complete in January 2019 in time for a February opening.
“We are excited about it. We are looking forward to getting the park in first-class condition,’’ Grasso said.
The Gilbert park closed in July 2017, a surprise move that town officials said was necessary to protect public safety. The safety problems included crumbling concrete and concerns that faux outfield walls, built to resemble actual major league stadiums, might fall in a monsoon storm.
The town subsequently revoked a long-term memorandum of understanding with Big League Dreams to operate the park, saying the company had failed to maintain the facility as required by the contract.
At first, Big League Dreams vehemently denied fault in the operation of the facility and vowed to do everything possible to operate it again, but those efforts have apparently struck out.
Chuck Jelloian, a spokesman for Big League Dreams, no longer mentions the possibility of his company returning to the complex.
“It’s very unfortunate the town would not engage in more dialogue and chose to go this route,’’ Jelloian said. “It’s still early on (in the suit) but we trust the process.’’
He said Big League Dreams is focusing on operating its 10 other baseball-themed sports parks in California, Nevada and Texas.
Big League Dreams’ website still lists the Gilbert facility, but it also features a November letter to customers from Jeff Odekirk, the company’s managing director and chief operating officer, defending the company’s actions and thanking customers for their support.
He said the facility was “immensely popular’’ despite the construction flaws and featured 41 weekend youth tournaments during 2016. He blamed the facility’s problems on Mortenson and said Gilbert had refused to negotiate a solution.
Court documents describe a deal gone bad, one in which Gilbert failed to realize the benefits promised by Big League Dreams. The company projected Gilbert would receive $1.4 million annually.
Instead, the park generated $28 million in revenues since it opened and the town received $990,000.
The crux of Gilbert’s case against Big League Dreams is that the contract required the company to pay for structural replacement, along with maintenance and repair services.
Grasso argues that Gilbert did not sue Big League Dreams for design defects covered by the Mortenson litigation and that Gilbert’s claims all relate to Big League Dreams’ failure comply with the operating contract.
Michael Van, an attorney for Big League Dreams, makes a statute of limitations argument in one of his court filings, saying that the town is not eligible to collect on a breach of contract claim.
Grasso said the suit could drag on for a year and end in a trial if there is no out-of-court settlement.
Despite its falling out with Big League Dreams, Gilbert is not ruling out the possibility of working with a private operator for the facility while still maintaining ownership of the park.
At the June 21 Town Council meeting, Councilmember Eddie Cook said the town is in discussions with potential private partners and that he looks “forward to a great public-private partnership with our potential new partner.”
At the same time, the Council looked at the question of how many town employees would be needed to run the park. Town Parks and Recreation staff requested the equivalent of 23.75 full-time positions to staff the park – 12.5 maintenance positions and 11.25 recreation positions. The positions would cost the town $733,000 of Elliot District Park’s $1.5 million budget for Fiscal Year 2019.
It is unclear whether those positions will still be necessary if the town comes to an agreement with a private operator.
Town Manager Patrick Banger said the town has dedicated some operation dollars to secure advertising to offset the cost of operating the park in the future.
Councilmember Victor Petersen said he thought the staffing request was too high – though Mayor Jenn Daniels pointed out that Big League Dreams required 85 employees to run the facility.
Ultimately, the Council asked for more time to consider the issue and receive additional information from staff justifying the request. The Council agreed to address the bulk of the positions at a later date.
The Council did approve two positions immediately to address concerns posed by Cook and Daniels that it would miss out on the chance to book youth sports tournaments that already are making plans for next year.
“We have several groups that are requesting to book out basically every weekend of the year,” interim Parks and Recreation Director Robert Carmona said.