Last updated on July 3rd, 2019 at 07:11 pm
After looking like it struck out on a deal earlier this year, Waukesha is rounding third in its quest to bring Northwoods League baseball to the city.
Last month, after dropping plans for a baseball stadium in Frame Park, Northwoods League team owner Big Top Baseball approached Waukesha officials again with a new, $12 million plan for a ballpark at the city-owned Mindiola Park near West Sunset Drive.
The new proposal drew less ire from Waukesha residents who opposed adding a 2,500-seat stadium to Frame Park along the Fox River, but it also increased the price from its original $4.7 million.
The Northwoods League is a summer league for college baseball players and has teams in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Michigan, North Dakota and Ontario, Canada.
Local teams include the Lakeshore Chinooks in Mequon, which started in 2012, and the Kenosha Kingfish. The teams have a 72-game season with 36 home games.
Carroll University, Waukesha North High School and Waukesha South High School baseball teams would also play at the Mindiola ballpark.
A collegiate soccer team owned by Big Top would also play eight to 10 home games at the stadium.
“This is something that could unite a community of our size,” said Waukesha city administrator Kevin Lahner. “And from an economic development standpoint, it would bring in a lot of visitors to support the local businesses and redevelop that area.”
In March, the city approved a conceptual plan for the Mindiola proposal. However, there are still many details that need to be ironed out before the project moves forward.
Those details include how much money Big Top will pay the city per year to rent the stadium, and how the project will be funded.
Ownership of the ballpark is still unknown. Big Top’s annual contribution and how much money the city will have to contribute are also undecided.
Under the earlier Frame Park proposal, Big Top Baseball would:
Pay $500,000 upfront and $150,000 per year.
Pay an annual contribution to Frame Park of $25,000 for park improvements outside the boundaries of the baseball stadium.
Lahner said a contract with Big Top for the Mindiola stadium is being drafted and should be to the City Council for approval in May.
Years in the making
Lahner, who was hired in 2014, said the City Council approved bringing a collegiate baseball team to Waukesha in 2008 with a different operator.
At that time, improvements were made to Frame Park, but the recession prevented the project from moving forward, Lahner said.
“Fast forward, and just by nature of the fact that I’ve been to Northwoods games, seen the facilities and talked to peers, I rekindled the conversations and reached out to Big Top,” Lahner said.
Frame Park was again the site chosen for the stadium. But public outcry – including two Facebook pages that oppose the project, “Watching Waukesha” and “Save Frame Park” – made the city abandon the site.
“The public appetite wasn’t there, and that’s fine,” Lahner said. “But before we threw in the towel, I sat down with the parks director and we talked over several ideas and came up with this site.”
Mindiola was interesting, Lahner said, because the city was already planning improvements to the park’s soccer fields.
Conor Caloia, chief operating officer of Big Top Baseball, said the company has wanted to put a team in the greater Milwaukee area for several years and Waukesha is a premier market.
If the City Council approves the final operating agreements next month, a community contest will be held to name the team, Caloia said.
The first pitch will likely be thrown in 2020.
“This has been a work in progress, but we look forward to having an agreement come together,” Caloia said.
Big Top Baseball currently owns four teams, the Kenosha Kingfish, Madison Mallards, Wisconsin Rapids Rafters and Green Bay Bullfrogs. It also operates Breese Stevens Field in Madison in a use agreement with the City of Madison.
The Mindiola Park facility would have stadium-style seats, corporate hospitality party spaces and affordable family ticket prices, Caloia said.
Average ticket prices at Northwoods games are $11. Most Northwoods games average 1,800 to 1,900 fans per game, with the Kenosha team drawing 2,500 fans a night for many of its games, Caloia said.
Caloia believes Waukesha will also be a popular venue.
“The Frame Park situation was new to us,” Caloia said. “We operate in four communities across the state and have never had that resistance. That being said, we ultimately listened and are excited about the opportunities at Mindiola Park.”
Whether Waukesha ends up with a team named the Walleyes, the Spring City Spartans or the Gumdrops – as Lahner’s 6-year-old son would like to see happen – the city seems to be on deck for a team.
“I’m excited to see this happen,” Lahner said. “The whole thing could be really cool for our city, to increase tourism a bit and to bring everyone together.”