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The Elizabethtown Sports Park pulses with visitors on a mild summer day.
The sun is shining and voices sound out from quads and pavilions as eager parents cheer on their young athletes and coaches call impromptu huddles to develop aggressive mindsets for the next game.
It is the Athletx Baseball Youth Nationals, a monstrous two-week tournament that attracted nearly 180 youth baseball teams from locations as far as the shores of Hawaii, the dusty streets of Texas, the rustic farmlands of Wisconsin and the metropolitan bustle of Brooklyn, New York.
The crack of a bat sounds every few minutes as crowds cheer when a run is scored or a batter strikes out. Jim Haddaway smiles, taking a break from his duties as tournament director. When asked what makes the Elizabethtown Sports Park stand out, he speaks in almost reverent tones.
“I can honestly say that we feel this is the best park in youth baseball,” he said.
Haddaway’s opinion stems from personal touches at the facility other parks may have overlooked. He mentions the batting cages, wireless Internet, concessions stands at pavilions and immaculate fields — manicured between each game — as reasons why the park has earned high marks during its first year of operation. The centralized location is an easy drive for many teams, he said.
Haddaway also appreciates the care taken by the staff to meet needs and manage problems. The only major complaint he has fielded during the park’s largest tournament was parking, which can become dicey and remote when drawing such a large crowd. Tournament organizers ran their own shuttle during the tour to accommodate those who had to park far from their fields, he said.
Sports Park Director Seth Breitner said the city will review the parking issue and may consider running a shuttle during larger events.
It is just one of many ways the park has tried to practice its mission of customer service. Breitner said the staff’s goal is to provide a professional and orderly experience that includes impeccable fields, consistently clean and functioning facilities and friendly and reliable service.
Janna Clark, sports and sales director for the Elizabethtown Tourism & Convention Bureau, said great expectations have been laid down for the park, easily one of the most controversial developments in Elizabethtown’s history because of its multi-million dollar price tag and financing source.
“We want to live up to what the park has promised,” she said.
Extra effort was made to provide a personal space for tournament organizers to set up operations and lock up their belongings, which is preferable to a makeshift office in a vehicle.
“We want to make it as close to professional as possible,” Clark said.
Since opening July 21, 2012, with the Cal Ripken Ohio Valley Regional youth baseball tournament, the park has hosted more than 40 sporting events. Approximately 30 more are scheduled through Dec. 1.
As of Thursday, 1,595 teams had competed at the park, including 986 youth baseball teams, 493 youth soccer teams, 52 youth football teams and a smaller number of fast-pitch softball and adult soccer teams. The park also has hosted more than 460 cross country runners and nearly 25,000 individual athletes, Clark said. More than 40,000 people have visited the park as spectators, coaches or tournament directors from 35 states and Canada.
Breitner admits he was shocked by how successful the park has been at such an early stage, crediting word of mouth as a powerful marketing tool when teams return home and share stories.
City officials visited parks around the country when designing the facility with that goal in mind. While Breitner thought the park had the potential to attract 40-team tournaments, it now routinely attracts those with 70 teams or more.
Best facility around?
Merf Conley pulls his squad aside and speaks with a booming voice as they exit a quad, instructing them to rest and prepare their bodies and minds to grind out a win in their next game.
Conley is head coach of the Grove City Vipers Silver 12U, a central Ohio-based baseball team that primarily plays in the Columbus area. He was awestruck by the park on his first visit, commenting on its sleek exterior and the quality surface of the fields.
“This is the best facility I’ve ever played in,” Conley said. It is an opinion shared by others.
Daniel Corona, head coach of the Brooklyn Blue Storm 9U Elite Squad, said he was unfamiliar with Kentucky’s offerings before the trip. The team feared they may find little to fill their time in the Bluegrass State.
“We couldn’t Google much,” he said.
The team plays the majority of games in the New York City area, occasionally venturing to Baltimore or other cities within a few hours drive.
But after competing in a tournament in Georgia, the team was ready to show the South and the rest of the country New York youth baseball is legitimate, Corona said.
“That’s when we knew we had a special ball club,” he said.
The magic followed them to Elizabethtown as they left Kentucky as national champions.
They also took with them an endearing first impression of Elizabethtown and the surrounding cities they visited. Corona praised the Southern hospitality and kindness exhibited by those they encountered and complimented regional attractions such as the Louisville Slugger Museum. The team stayed in Bardstown.
Like others, Corona had never played on or experienced a venue like Elizabethtown Sports Park. Facilities of its caliber are not available in the New York area, he said.
The Cal Ripken Field in Maryland is the only one he’s seen that is comparable, but even so, it is not half the quality, he said.
Corona wants to defend the team’s title next year in Elizabethtown, but said he hopes other opportunities arise for the team to return before that.
Parents also were impressed with the park’s layout and amenities.
Don and Teresa Wright traveled with their sons who play with the Blackhawk Crushers of Beaver Falls, Pa.
The couple said the park was one of the nicest they had visited and the area had proven amenable and friendly with a number of entertainment and recreational options.
Jennifer Hurley traveled from Kenosha, Wis., with the Kenosha Merchants and was staying in Louisville, trying to adjust to the warmer weather.
“It’s beautiful, very nice,” she said of the park, pointing to the shaded bleachers at the quad she was in. “It’s very comfortable.”
Hurley and fellow Wisconsin visitor Josie Hughes said there are no parks in Wisconsin or Michigan they could compare it to.
“This is probably the best park we’ve been to,” Hurley said.
Tournament success vs. local use
While the park has established a tournament schedule rhythm, a warring faction exists around Hardin County as some league and school officials have criticized the access they have to the park.
Alex Shearer, John Hardin High School boys’ soccer coach, said he was under the belief the park was primarily designed as a facility for local leagues and schools, but he has found no advantages for local teams.
“We are treated the same way as anyone from Louisville, Bowling Green or Nashville,” he said, advocating for some form of preferential treatment when it comes to availability and rates.
Shearer said hosting an event at the park could cost his team thousands because they have to pay the same rate as everyone else without the benefit of taking home concessions, which are collected by the park. The team also would have to pay its referees, he said.
While Shearer said he could learn to live with the policy if the park remains consistently fair to everyone, he believes a compromise to accommodate local schools and teams should be considered, such as discounted prices on rental fees and lights or the occasional opportunity to use the park at no charge. As it is, he feels local teams are penalized because they routinely pay the restaurant tax which is financing the park’s $28.5 million construction, but still are expected to pay full rates to compete.
“What I think they’re saying is we don’t want you at the park,” Shearer said.
Josh Lovelady, president of the Elizabethtown Youth Soccer Association, has similar concerns about his league’s access to the park.
Lovelady said EYSA was offered a series of weekdays to use the park, but they play games on weekends and practice during the week. When polling parents in the organization, nearly 60 percent turned down the weekday slots to remain at the Mike Carroll Soccer Complex on weekends.
“If the opinion is staying where we’re at, we will stay where we’re at,” he said.
Like Shearer, Lovelady believes the park should make more overtures to local athletes than it does to outside teams because it is a public facility funded by taxpayer money. At the same time, the park is a welcome addition from an economic standpoint and markets the city well, he said.
The park is not in a position where it can show preferential treatment to anyone without setting a precedent for unfairness, Breitner said. As it stands, the primary focus is on generating tournaments and economic success while offering free use to local leagues Monday through Thursday as available, he said. With the park gaining more traction, there are more weekday events and Breitner is not sure the public understands how busy the park is.
He estimated leagues have used the park around 60 days and played nearly 300 games since it opened.
Juggling the needs of tournaments and local leagues remains a challenging balancing act — one Breitner said the park has not mastered.
“It’s all a (learning curve) and we still have to figure it out,” he said.
Marty Finley can be reached at (270) 505-1762 or firstname.lastname@example.org.