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Is this heaven? Maybe, once MLB finishes Field of Dreams stadium in Dyersville

MLB game could be grand slam for stalled $70 million youth baseball-softball complex

A rendering shows the temporary 8,000-seat stadium under construction near the Field of Dreams site in Dyersville. (Major League Baseball)
A rendering shows the temporary 8,000-seat stadium under construction near the Field of Dreams site in Dyersville. (Major League Baseball)
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DYERSVILLE — Thousands of people “will most definitely come” to Dyersville next August to watch the first major league baseball game at the Field of Dreams, and in Iowa, period, between the Chicago White Sox and the New York Yankees.

The teams won’t play on the iconic diamond, memorably — and quotably — built by Ray Kinsella, played by Kevin Costner in the 1989 movie.

Instead, a path through the 9-foot cornstalks will lead spectators to a new ballfield, built with major league park dimensions and a short walk north from the movie site.

There, construction crews already have plowed 17 acres of the former cornfield and removed 30,000 cubic yards of soil.

Come Aug. 13, 2020, they’ll have built an 8,000-seat stadium with all the trappings needed to welcome an expected torrent of international traffic.

“This is going to be one of the biggest tickets to get in 2020,” said Keith Rahe, president and CEO of Travel Dubuque and organizer of the site’s iconic team of Ghost Players.

“To have one of the most recognizable brands in the world and to have the first pro baseball game played in Iowa in Dyersville, at the Field of Dreams, what a unique opportunity.”

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Everything but the new field will be torn down after the game, but Field of Dreams representatives and Dyersville stakeholders say the buzz could reverberate through the tourist destination years after the final “out” is called, bringing with it financial perks for the community.

Chief among the potential impacts could be progress on All-Star Ballpark Heaven, a youth sports facility priced around $70 million that field owners have envisioned but have been unsuccessful in advancing for the better part of a decade.

‘In good shape’

Major league baseball hired three companies — Blue Bell, Pa.-based Brightview for construction, Populous of Kansas City. Mo., for architectural design and BaAM Productions, of Toronto, as the executive producer — to handle the temporary stadium facilities at the Field of Dreams.

Construction began shortly after MLB announced the White Sox-Yankees game, on Aug. 8. Workers are now grading the site and installing drainage systems, said Murray Cook, president of BrightView’s sports turf division.

By next spring, Brightview hopes to have finished laying sod for the field, with the buildings expected to follow in early June. These will include the stadium, concession stands, baseball dugouts, training facilities and media work spaces.

Stadium and field

The stadium design is a throwback to Chicago’s old Comiskey Park, home to the White Sox — including the film’s “Shoeless” Joe Jackson — from 1910 to 1990 and includes cornfield views through windows in the right-field wall.

Cook likened the Field of Dreams project to a similar temporary stadium his company built in Fort Bragg, N.C., for a July 2016 game between the Atlanta Braves and the Miami Marlins.

That was an 120-day project, compared to the months tht workers have to complete work in Dyersville.

“We’ve been successful in building these fields pretty quickly, and we’re in good shape,” Cook said. “We’re creating this venue in Iowa, and we’re bringing in a lot of folks around the state here to help us build it.”

MLB representatives declined to provide a cost estimate for the temporary stadium but said it would be similar in scope to the Fort Bragg project, which they ballparked around $6 million.

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After the stadium and facilities are torn down, the field will belong to Go the Distance Baseball LLC, the private partnership that owns and maintains the Field of Dreams.

Tom Mietzel, the group’s CEO, said he “absolutely” will pursue future minor league games at the field, though any major league games beyond the White Sox-Yankees matchup would be up to MLB.

In the meantime, Go the Distance Baseball also could rent the field to not-for-profit organizations for fundraisers or private parties, said Roman Weinberg, the group’s operations manager.

Sky’s the limit

In his five years working with Go the Distance Baseball, Weinberg said the question he used to field most frequently was “What are your hours?”

Since August, the new question has been, “How can I get tickets?”

“The phones were ringing off the hook for a solid week after the announcement,” he said.

He noted the tickets will be handled through MLB, which has not yet made announcements about sales.

Weinberg said the Field of Dreams saw a steady uptick in visitors after Aug. 8, putting the tourist destination on track to beat its record annual traffic count — 115,000 visitors in 2018 — with 150,000 visitors projected by the end of this year.

Next year, he said, Go the Distance Baseball is aiming to reach 300,000 visitors.

“The sky’s the limit with MLB,” Weinberg said.

‘Flabbergasted’

That heightened interest carried over to the first Ghost Sunday gathering after the MLB game was announced. Around 1,500 people showed up for the event, which Travel Dubuque’s Rahe said was the largest crowd since the event was restarted in 2013.

Rahe described the upcoming MLB game as a “crown jewel” in the field’s history and said he expects its viral marketing will bring a “significant amount of activity” to hotels and businesses throughout Eastern Iowa.

“You can’t put a price tag on that,” he said.

Dyersville officials were “flabbergasted” when they first heard the pitch to hold an MLB game at the Field of Dreams, recalled Jim Heavens, mayor of the Dubuque County city of 4,500.

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“It was something we had never thought of,” Heavens said. “... I guess we never realized there was such a thing as building a temporary stadium and having a real major league game there.

“I’m all of a sudden really popular around here,” Heavens joked, noting the inquiries about tickets.

He doesn’t believe, though, the game will dramatically boost local economic development.

Instead, Heavens likened the game to a RAGBRAI stop, saying, “You would have a huge upswing of people in town. You’d triple the size of the town for a day or two and then you’d go back to normal.”

Stillman credited

Mietzel, of Go the Distance Baseball, credited the idea of the MLB game to his wife, Denise Stillman, former CEO and chief preservationist of Go the Distance Baseball, who died from a rare form of liver cancer Nov. 7, 2018.

Stillman first started trying to get the MLB interested in a Field of Dreams game in 2015 but put the idea on hold because of a clause in her group’s purchase agreement for the property, preventing changes to the land until it was paid off, Mietzel said.

The door reopened after the agreement was refinanced in 2017, he said, and Stillman stayed involved, courting the MLB until her death.

“This was her baby — I’m just carrying it across the finish line,” Mietzel said.

Irons in the fire

Independent of the MLB game, Go the Distance Baseball is carrying out revitalization efforts around the Field of Dreams.

The group in October announced its partnership with Baseballism, a Portland, Ore., lifestyle aparrel brand, which is building a 3,000-square-foot retail store in place of the field’s original gift shop.

Also in the cards, Weinberg said, is the remodeling of a barn on the property as a space for events such as weddings and a restaurant on the lower floor.

Baseball heaven

The largest undertaking Go the Distance Baseball is eyeing is All-Star Ballpark Heaven, a multimillion-dollar baseball-softball complex near the Field of Dreams, with numerous fields and an indoor facility for players ages 8 to 14.

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It’s a project that has faced roadblocks for years but officials say the idea might see progress in 2020 — thanks to momentum from the MLB game and rejuvenated interest in the field site.

“With MLB coming onboard, it has opened up numerous avenues,” said Mietzel, who added his group has “a number of irons in the fire. Frankly they bring a lot of credibility to our facility, which has made inroads in other areas, financial and otherwise, easier.”

Go the Distance Baseball bought 193 acres, including the movie site and land around it, for $3.4 million in December 2012, pledging to build All-Star Ballpark Heaven with 24 fields and an 88,000-square-foot indoor facility — a project initially valued at $38 million, an estimate later revised upward to $70 million.

The proposed complex captured headlines nationwide and attracted a group of investors, more than half of them Iowa residents, plus Wade Boggs, a Hall of Famer former third baseman for the Yankees and Boston Red Sox, and actor Matthew Perry of “Friends” fame.

Not everyone was on board. A coalition of 18 Dyersville neighbors, the Residential and Agricultural Advisory Committee, sued the city council in October 2012. arguing in district court that officials unlawfully rezoned the property for commercial use.

The lawsuit progressed up to the Iowa Supreme Court, which in December 2016 upheld the rezoning.

During that time, Go the Distance Baseball separately sued the residents committee for defamation and “tortious interference.” The residents countersued, and both parties agreed in December 2013 to drop the cases.

20 fields?

Now, nearly six years later, Weinberg said Go the Distance Baseball hopes to begin construction on All-Star Ballpark Heaven next spring, with a pod of six initial fields. The group also is “fine-tuning” its vision for the indoor facility, now estimated at 40,000 to 50,000 square feet, he said.

Mietzel said the MLB stadium effectively took space away from several fields in Go the Distance Baseball’s original proposal.

Even so, he said, All-Star Ballpark Heaven will not be “hugely downsized” and could have “in the neighborhood” of 20 fields.

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“We’re not going to overbuild, so we’ll build the first several fields and then, as we fill those and have a good usage of those, we’ll built out the next set,” Mietzel said.

The $70 million cost estimate still is “not unrealistic” once all the fields are built out over four to five years, he said.

The complex currently has a little more than 30 investors.

Not ‘too big’

Matt Mescher, a Dyersville resident and a former residents committee member, said though he still would prefer the sports complex not be developed, “less is better than more” when it comes to the proposed smaller scope.

“We hoped it was dead in the water, but I don’t think anybody was sleeping that well at night, thinking it was gone forever,” he said. “Personally, I thought something was always going to happen there.”

Mescher acknowledged the potential economic benefits for Dyersville but expressed concern about traffic and light pollution, beyond what already exists at the Field of Dreams. With more fields, he said, “you could probably see it from outer space.”

“It’s going to bring its own set of problems, and it’s going to bring its own set of benefits, there’s no doubt about it,” he said.

Dyersville Mayor Heavens said fewer fields and a smaller indoor facility should amelioriate longtime concerns the complex would be “too big.”

“I think when you look at a scaled-down version, that kind of overcomes one of the objections, so it’s not so big and overpowering,” he said.

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Rahe, of Travel Dubuque, recognized concerns that All-Star Ballpark Heaven could detract from the area’s bucolic atmosphere but added, “What they’re proposing will not take away from the field itself.”

“People can continue to go there, drive down the road, see the Field of Dreams, the big white house, everything involved,” Rahe said. “That element, I think they’re very aware, very cognizant of not taking anything away from that.”

All tourist attractions, including the Field of Dreams, must evolve over time, he said.

“If you’re not doing that,” he said, “it makes it difficult to get people to come back or to attract new people.”

Economic impact

In a 2012 impact report on the original 24-field idea, the Strategic Economics Group, of Des Moines, reported All-Star Ballpark Heaven could generate nearly 1,200 full-time jobs in the six-county region in four years.

The complex also was expected to result in an annual increase of $4.2 million in state and $2.2 million in local tax receipts in five years and add $25 million to labor income in the region by year eight, according to the report.

Mietzel said those figures likely have changed over the years. But, he said, Go the Distance Baseball aims to serve 1,200 youth teams per year at its complex, and those players and their families will have an “enormous” economic effect.

“With the number of teams, restaurants will grow, hotels will come in,” he said. “There’s going to be a mountain of ancillary services that those teams are going to need.”

Rahe said he and his organization hope those new visitors can boost midweek traffic at Dubuque hotels and attractions.

Tax incentives

What, if any, government funding All-Star Ballpark Heaven might receive remains to be determined.

Former Gov. Terry Branstad in April 2012 signed legislation that would provide All-Star Ballpark Heaven a 5 percent state sales tax rebate of up to $16.5 million or 10 years.

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Though developers missed a 2013 deadline for those funds, state lawmakers in 2016 modified the law to allow a sales tax rebate up to $2.5 million or 10 years for sports complexes with total project costs more than $10 million.

Dyersville officials also agreed in 2012 to rebate up to $5.1 million in property tax revenue to Go the Distance Baseball over 15 years — though Heavens said the city could revisit the incentive to account for changes in the plans.

“Nobody’s really dusted that off for a long time to look at it,” he said. “I’d have to think city council would take a fresh look at that now.”

Comments: (319) 398-8366; thomas.friestad@thegazette.com

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