NORTH LIBERTY– America’s pastime gets a lot of play in North Liberty.
Local supporters are asking for a little more.
Penn Meadows Park, on the east side of North Liberty and the community’s largest developed park facility, currently contains nine ball diamonds for youth baseball and softball. The existing diamonds at Penn Meadows, as well as one each at Koser and Quail Ridge parks, are primarily used by the North Liberty Youth Baseball and Softball (NLYBS) league in the late spring and early summer. Only one of those fields is regulation size, suitable for tournaments for older teams in different competitive leagues.
Several people approached the North Liberty City Council during its Aug. 9 meeting to advocate for an additional tournament-size field to be constructed in Penn Meadows Park.
True, NLYBS is the largest league using the park in the summer, with eight weeks of games played from May through July 4. There were 930 children who played baseball or softball in the NLYBS program this year, and enrollment only continues to expand.
But it isn’t NLYBS that is seeking the additional field; the city’s Parks and Recreation department is, and it is important to understand the distinction.
NLYBS has partnered with the City of North Liberty to provide its program– in various incarnations over the years– but NLYBS is a separate, self-sustaining organization, run by volunteers and funded by sponsorships, donations and participant fees. The city built the first set of four fields, and NLYBS contributed funds, with the assistance of the North Liberty Optimists and the North Liberty American Legion, to build a second four-plex. Each year, NLYBS pays for the agricultural lime, new gravel in the dugouts, dumpsters and markings for the fields. North Liberty’s Parks Department conducts year-round maintenance on the fields, clears trash, empties the dumpsters and mows and drags the fields regularly, in preparation for weekend tournaments. Restroom facilities are shared by both entities.
In turn, North Liberty is able to rent three of the ball fields to other users on weekends, bringing in revenues for the city.
It’s been a copacetic relationship for many years.
And given the popularity of the sport, most everyone understands– ball fans and non-fans alike– the need for another field.
But not everyone agrees on where it should go.
North Liberty’s Parks Department and Recreation Department officials analyzed the best spot for a 12th field, using the Comprehensive Park Plan as a guide and taking into consideration existing parking, restroom facilities, traffic flow issues and available green space at the 19 parks throughout the city.
The area at Penn Meadows Park, near the north parking lot, emerged as the clear choice, Parks & Recreation commissioner Kerry Fitzpatrick told the council.
“We felt it was important to keep that field associated with the existing fields for a number of reasons,” said Fitzpatrick. “It makes that site more desirable for parents. It also holds down the amount of travel time staff would have, and the number of storage locations they would need (to keep equipment) to maintain the field. There was no other location that didn’t have problems with one or the other of those reasons.”
In addition, resident Glenn Siders told the council there is a common “ball park theory that makes sense. If you do a lot of baseball, you go to complexes in other communities and you see all the ballparks in one park, where there are the concession stands, and bathroom facilities. The trend is to separate baseball, soccer and football because the facilities are utilized differently. Economically, it works better to combine facilities.” Siders is an assistant coach for an independent baseball team, and he added that it is very difficult to find ball diamonds the appropriate size for players between the ages of 11 and 14.
“This particular ball diamond is for an older age group,” Siders said. “Most school systems do not have a junior high (baseball or softball) program, so all the teams go independent. There are no leagues available for them. There are no places to play.”
Finally, Parks & Recreation commissioners noted, having a second tournament-size field makes the site favorable to outside leagues seeking tournament locations, which brings revenues to the city.
However, long-time North Liberty resident Ron Bandy, whose property is near Penn Meadows, disagreed with the proposed location.
“I oppose the proposal. We are losing Penn Meadows as a park to NLYBS and a baseball complex. It’s not a suitable location for baseball complex. Add another field and you will drastically alter the environment of the neighborhood.”
Bandy said he would like to see the green space– where the ball field would be located– kept green for varied uses, such as soccer practice and games, flag football or family picnics.
“NLYBS has pretty much claimed ownership of the park with the eight fields they have now,” said Bandy. “I ask to keep the diversity. Don’t relocate the soccer players.”
A few North Liberty City Council members voiced similar concerns, as did Mayor Tom Salm.
“I have lived by the park for 33 years. I’d really hate to see that park being consumed by ball diamonds,” said Salm. “We have roughly 39 acres, and about 37 of them would be ball diamonds and parking lot.”
Council member Terry Donahue didn’t disagree with putting another ball diamond at Penn Meadows, but said he would not want to do so at the sacrifice of other users and sports enthusiasts.
“We’d be losing (a place for) soccer, flag football, with no identifiable replacement,” said Donahue. “I’d like us to identify what other (park) areas we could enhance for other sports. I don’t want to discount those kids either.”
North Liberty Recreation Director Shelly Simpson addressed the concerns about other uses, explaining that flag football, a program which North Liberty has historically shared with Coralville, has been moved to Coralville’s new sports complex located just south of North Central Jr. High outside of North Liberty.
“It’s conveniently located between North Liberty and Coralville, so that program will not be impacted,” said Simpson.
As for youth soccer, she said, she and her staff simply have not seen the demand.
“Everybody plays soccer through the Iowa City Kickers (league), and they have their own sport complex on south side of Iowa City. We have not had any individuals asking for more space for soccer,” Simpson said.
Still, the argument wasn’t enough to bring it all the way home for the council. They voted unanimously– with council member Chris Hoffman absent– to table the discussion and any further action until they could meet with the Parks & Recreation Commission
That meeting took place on Sept. 1. Parks Department and Recreation Department staff, along with City Planner Dean Wheatley, reviewed North Liberty’s Comprehensive Parks Plan, showing all 19 of the city’s current park facilities, their amenities and intended future improvements. There was a lot of talk about where all kinds of outdoor activities could potentially be located, but the outcome was essentially the same when it came to the fate of the proposed ball diamond.
There was no real consensus from the council.
Instead, the group agreed to conduct another joint work session with the Parks & Recreation Commission in the near future.
The next meeting of the Parks & Recreation Commission is scheduled for Oct. 6, said Simpson, but there has been no indication whether council will attend, and a joint work session has not yet been scheduled.
Meanwhile, the North Liberty City Council will be gathering additional information and input so the decision of a new ball diamond location is done with forethought and careful planning, Mayor Salm said last week.
“I’m not really set on stopping it. We’re just trying to get them to look at the big picture, the same as council needs to do when planning,” he said. “Let’s be visionary and try to accommodate the entire community if possible when we plan. Sometime we all get stuck into a little tunnel vision.”