Last updated on July 2nd, 2019 at 09:44 am
As childhood friends growing up in Franklin, Michael Zimmerman and Tom Johns developed a love of baseball.
Johns recalls living next to former Milwaukee Brewers catcher B.J. Surhoff. And through his church, Johns formed a friendship with former Brewers pitcher Bill Wegman. During one season, when Wegman was injured, he often brought Johns and his brother to Milwaukee County Stadium to take some swings at the indoor batting cage and hang out there with other players and their kids.
“I’ll never forget that,” Johns said.
Zimmerman recalls a family trip to Dyersville, Iowa, to see the Field of Dreams movie site where a baseball field was built in a cornfield.
“On the way home, my dad said (to the family), ‘Let’s build a baseball field,'” Zimmerman said.
That ball field created in the family’s Franklin yard was not the only thing that Zimmerman’s dad built. In 1986, he started a health care publications company.
“My dad is an excellent entrepreneur,” Zimmerman said. “He taught me how to be an entrepreneur.”
That led to Zimmerman forming several health care-related businesses, including Accretive Health Inc. in 2002. Now based in Chicago, the company provides services for health care providers, including revenue management services, to improve operating margins and health care quality. The company went public in 2010 (its shares are traded on the New York Stock Exchange under the ticker symbol AH), and Zimmerman sold his entire stake.
Today, Zimmerman is the owner of Greenfield-based Zimmerman Ventures LLC, which includes five health care-related businesses (see sidebar).
“We’ve built a number of health care related businesses, had some success there,” Zimmerman said.
Johns went into his family plumbing business and is a principal of West Allis-based Andersen Plumbing Inc.
But Zimmerman and Johns could never get baseball out of their blood. Johns played baseball at Grace College in Winona Lake, Ind. He and Zimmerman play together on a Milwaukee Men’s Senior Baseball League team, the Mud Hens, managed by Zimmerman, which won their division championship last year.
“My first love is baseball,” Zimmerman said.
Last year, Zimmerman was seeking a way to give back to the community. Meanwhile, Milwaukee County was in a year-to-year lease with Crystal Ridge ski hill operator John Kaishian. Last March, Zimmerman approached county officials with interest to develop a baseball complex in the area. James Keegan, now interim director of the Milwaukee County Parks Department, suggested he look at the Crystal Ridge property, located northwest of Loomis Road and South 76th Street, near Zimmerman’s Franklin home.
Built on a former landfill site, the 142-acre ski hill property got little use in the off-season, other than a driving range and some mountain bike trails and a BMX track, and had been neglected.
“It was a nightmare,” Zimmerman said. “It was literally an eyesore.”
Johns said the property “looked like a junkyard” with old equipment, trucks and materials scattered throughout the site.
“It was a dump,” said James Keegan, interim director of the Milwaukee County Parks Department. “It was a capped landfill that had its challenges. Most landfills do.”
But Zimmerman embraced the challenge of transforming the property. County officials entered into negotiations with Zimmerman, who crafted a plan to upgrade the ski hill and add other sports facilities, including baseball fields and better bike facilities. Crystal Ridge was a viable ski hill under Kaishian’s management, but Zimmerman offered an opportunity for a major upgrade, and Parks Department officials wanted to take advantage, said Milwaukee County Parks Department spokesman Jeff Baudry.
“I think (the improvements being made to the ski hill) are incredible,” he said. “They are making an incredible transition.”
The deal came together quickly and created some concerns with Milwaukee County officials.
“(Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele) said at the time there were some concerns with how it went forward,” said Brendan Conway, spokesman for Abele. “It moved really fast at one point, without going through some of the proper channels. We were able to slow that down and get everyone on the same page.”
When asked if the way the deal was handled had anything to do with Abele’s firing of Milwaukee County Parks Department Director Sue Black, Conway declined to comment.
Zimmerman agreed to a lease and profit-sharing deal for the Crystal Ridge property (see sidebar) and quickly renamed and re-branded it as The Rock Sports Complex. He brought on Johns to serve as the general manager of The Rock.
Zimmerman said he plans to invest about $7 million in capital improvements to The Rock.
“The success of Accreative gave us the means, frankly, to do projects like this,” he said. “It’s almost like pursuing your boyhood dream. It’s a very, very unique opportunity.”
The first phase of The Rock project has included improvements to the lodge building and new snowmaking and grooming equipment. The largest obstacles have been the two chairlifts at the ski hill. Both were in poor shape and were shut down. Skiers have been using tow lines instead this year. One of the lifts will be repaired and will reopen next year, while the other will be replaced with a new lift.
“We’re not going to compromise on safety,” Johns said.
Zimmerman and Johns had no experience in the ski business, so they have been learning, “a lot about what not to do,” Zimmerman said.
They added a snow tubing area to the ski hill this year, which has been a big hit.
“That’s just doing incredible,” Zimmerman said.
The tubing area will probably be expanded, Johns said.
“The demand for us is there,” he said. “People just love it. They absolutely love it.”
Meanwhile, six baseball fields have been built at The Rock. They will be ready for play in April. Six more fields will be built on the complex in the second phase of development.
The fields will be mix of adult, youth and softball fields. They will have lights for night games and will be maintained at professional quality. Some of the fields will have artificial turf infields and the dimensions of the fields will be scaled down versions of Major League Baseball ballparks, including a Fenway Park replica complete with a towering Green Monster wall in left field.
“The goal is to give the player an awesome experience,” Johns said.
“We want to treat people like they are Major Leaguers with fields built and maintained like a Major League diamond,” Zimmerman said.
The youth and adult leagues that play at the field will all be run by The Rock. Fields will not be rented to other leagues.
“We don’t want to be in the business of renting fields,” Zimmerman said. “We want to build a brand of baseball.”
The Milwaukee Baseball League and the Milwaukee Men’s Senior Baseball League have merged to form Rock League Baseball. All of the 54 teams in the combined league will play their games at The Rock.
The Rock will also host youth and adult baseball tournaments with teams from around the country.
The biking facilities at The Rock will also be upgraded dramatically. The site was previously used during the week by BMX bikers who would then complete at tracks in other communities on the weekends. Zimmerman wants to attract those BMX competitions to The Rock.
“I want to build the premier Midwest BMX,” he said. Construction is partially complete for that track, which is being designed by Jim Buchanan and constructed by Mark Hildebrand, and it will open this summer.
Existing mountain biking trails at the site had to be relocated to build the baseball fields. New trails will provide eight miles for mountain bikers.
More adventurous mountain bikers will want to take on the gravity bike trails that will be added at The Rock. It will be only the fourth gravity biking park in the nation, Zimmerman said. Gravity mountain biking is “aggressive downhill mountain biking,” he said, which requires full body armor for protection.
“In the mountain biking community, this will be one of the most important projects in the Midwest,” Zimmerman said.
Zimmerman and Johns also want to make The Rock a place for large family and community events. Last year, The Rock hosted The Hill Has Eyes, a Halloween event, which attracted about 6,000 people, Johns said.
They also plan to build an amphitheater on the bottom of the ski hill for concerts, family movie nights and other events.
Other future plans for The Rock include a bar/restaurant area covered by a large umbrella on a vantage point overlooking baseball fields and the mountain biking area, an indoor baseball training facility, an indoor volleyball facility, and multi-sport fields.
And there are still 40 acres of the 142-acre site with no definitive plans.
“We have a lot of ideas,” Zimmerman said.
The bottom line for The Rock is that it is now much more than just a ski hill. The Rock expects to have at least 205,000 visitors this year, and only 30,000 of them are expected to come to ski or snowboard, John said. The rest are expected to come for baseball, biking or other events.
“This will be a one-of-a-kind facility in the U.S.,” Johns said