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Champions Ridge road

The site on Highway 3 was picked as the home of Champions Ridge.

By anelia k. dimitrova

The council said it in a vote.

The city administrator on Monday night summed it up at the mayor’s request.

But it was not until Waverly’s plain-speaking mayor, Dean Soash, spelled it out in no uncertain terms, on Monday night, during a planned discussion of the softball/baseball facilities, that the harsh truth about a long-contemplated joint project between the Bremer County Fair Association and the ball leagues began to sink in.

Somehow, between public discussions, closed-sessions, proposal reviews and stakeholders’ public statements, some strategically dropped, others reluctantly sputtered, hope about a road forward for Champions Ridge seemed to persist.

That ended on Monday evening, when Mayor Soash said, “Champions Ridge isn’t any more.”

And later added, “It’s time to pull the trigger.”

The comments, which came toward the end of a discussion on the future of the baseball diamonds, laid to rest, what supporters had dreamed would be a “jewel in northeast Iowa.”

During Monday’s discussion, council members talked about the importance of youth recreation in Waverly.

All agreed that serving the needs of youth is a priority for the council and for the city, a goal expressed also by Champions Ridge supporters.

Fred Ribich, a former three-term Ward 5 council person, and a spokesperson for Champions Ridge, addressed the council, after the mayor invited comments from the audience.

Ribich, who has been with the project since the formation, in 2007, of the Ball Diamond Task Force, a group convened at the request of the then-city council to establish the needs and options, had this question for the current council.

Has the council really given thorough thought, he asked, to what it means to declare, as the mayor had just done, that Champions Ridge is no more.

“From my perspective, the council is wanting to start over what they believe will be the best way to serve our youth in terms of ball facilities,” he told Waverly Newspapers after the council meeting.

That work, he added, has already been done and is contained in the recommendations of the 2008 ball diamonds report.

It is out of this report, he added, that Champions Ridge emerged. And it is out of the countless hours of volunteer work, as well as two separate design studies, that the idea eventually took shape.

“Between that report and Champions Ridge birth, there were two architectural/design studies that were completed to determine the feasibility of a joint ball diamond/fair complex,” Ribich said.

Around 2010-2011, Ribich estimates, the two groups joined forces because parking, roadways and maintenance could be achieved more cost-effectively. The combined entity became known as the Fair Diamond Development Committee (FDDC).

Building on the recommendations of the task force report and the design studies, the FDDC worked with the city to identify a site and move the project forward.

The city bought the Smith property west of CUNA, on the north side of Highway 3, and entered into a development agreement with the ball groups and the fair association to fundraise and construct what later became known as Champions Ridge.

The estimated cost of the project is $6 million, which includes the cost of the land.

Ribich estimates the fundraising has brought in “at least $1.4 million in cash and pledges.”

As of now, the fair has paid for 40 acres of the land, but does not hold the deed. The ball groups and the fair have been working with an engineer to produce construction documents, which Ribich says are 95% complete.

During the meeting, Ribich said that so far, Champions Ridge has invested over $300,000 in moving the project forward in engineering costs, marketing and software, and has mobilized a network of over 160 donors. He said the project has half a million dollars in cash and the same amount in pledges.

“I thought it was a very inconsiderate, shabby way to inform Champions Ridge that we are no more, nobody told us that we are going back to square one,” Ribich told Waverly Newspapers after the council meeting. “It overlooks the years of volunteer hours and hard work that has been invested in this project, and it does not recognize the complexity of this collaborative effort between the city, the ball groups, the fair and county government.”

He continued:

“The action they took in January was not an official termination of the Champions Ridge project. It was an invitation to reset, and move forward, which is what we did.”

Ribich said the Waverly Softball Association presented the city with a proposal to purchase the remaining land from the city.

The discussion on the proposal was held in a closed session, but the mayor summarized it in his comments, eliciting caution from the city administrator.

Ribich said that after a discussion about a “reset” for Champions Ridge back in January, the Champions Ridge board told the council in March that they would be putting forward a proposal for purchase.

“It made it cleaner for us in terms of moving forward with the project,” he said. “But we never got an official response to the proposal, just that the council decided to have this discussion about the ball diamonds during Monday’s meeting, which really didn’t address our proposal.”

Terry Hinrichs, the Champions Ridge consultant, said he was very disappointed by the mayor’s announcement of the demise of the project.

“It could have been a major development opportunity for the area,” he said.

Dick Crayne, the former city administrator who was instrumental in facilitating the idea proposed by the task force in 2008, said he hadn’t kept with the developments. But once he learned about Monday’s discussion, he said Waverly may have missed an opportunity to attract visitors both for the fair and for the baseball and softball leagues.

“It’s unfortunate,” he said, “that the support couldn’t be thrown behind that project. Over the years, it has been going on for a number of years. Too bad that that’s not going to happen.”

Edna Brunkhorst, one of the donors, who, along with her husband, John, gave twice to the project, in 2018, and then in 2019, to the tune of $50,000 each time, said she was disappointed to learn of the end of Champions Ridge.

“We’re really sorry that it is stalled like this,” she told Waverly Newspapers on Tuesday in a phone interview. “We were looking forward to having a nice facility west of town. We just felt it was a good project, a local project, and it was something that was worth our money.”

Dean Mitchell, a Waverly native and a businessman, who started playing softball in 1972, when he returned from Vietnam, said seeing Champions Ridge come to fruition is on his bucket list.

He said the fields had not changed since he joined the league 47 years ago.

“No one will come to Waverly to play on our fields,” he said. “Everybody laughs about our fields, they are just terrible and the city continues to take our money and never updates at all.”

He said his league wants to own the land and “run it on our own.”

“All we want is for the city to get out of the Champions Ridge project,” he said. “Diamonds in Waverly are not fit for any kind of competitive youth softball, that’s why we have traveling teams.”

Darrel Parmer, a nephew of Neil Smith’s who lives in Charles City, said he expected the project to reach completion, both on behalf of his late uncle, who sold the land to the city and also on behalf of his mother, Sylvia, who passed away recently.

“She would also be disappointed,” he said. “We all assumed it was moving forward.”

He said Neil Smith had other opportunities to sell the land for industrial development, but “never really wanted to see it used for that,” so he opted to sell it to the city for the ball diamonds and the Bremer County Fair.

He said Smith was intrigued by a proposal brought to him by Fred Ribich at the time.

“It would have been nice if the project was successful, but since it is not, I would be curious what the city is going to use the land for,” Parmer said.

WHERE TO NOW?

In an interview with Waverly Newspapers immediately following the meeting, Mayor Soash said council discussion captured how the city wants to move forward — with the exploration of other sites and the formation of a committee that would pursue viable options.

“The youth need to be served,” he said. “We can do that within a reasonably short time. Our investment will be a little bit more in the end, but we will take care of it.”

He said Champions Ridge stopped fundraising in January, thereby sealing their fate.

“They made the choice,” he said. (In earlier interviews Hinrichs has said that he stopped fundraising, because he had no product to sell with discussions about a reset for the project pending).

Asked if the Champions Ridge site is out of the equation for the ball diamonds, the mayor did not miss a beat.

“I would not make a statement one way or the other,” he said, referring to the council discussion. “We have to look at all the sites in order to be fair.”

Ribich, the Champions Ridge spokesperson, said his board is still trying to process what transpired during the meeting.

“We brought the project within a hair’s breadth of breaking ground, so now we are at a loss to determine what the way forward is here. It is perfectly conceivable that if they study the needs, this group can go, ‘My goodness, Champions Ridge is the way to go. It’s a possibility. And in the meantime, we have lost another six months to a year.”

There are four youth ball leagues that are served by Waverly and Shell Rock diamonds, Ribich said: T-ball and Sluggers are run out of Shell Rock; girls softball and boys baseball are run out of Waverly.

There are three sites where the youth league plays — Memorial Park, AMVETS/Kiwanis in the southeast part of town and in Shell Rock.

Ribich estimated over 800 youth are served in the programs.

During Monday’s discussion, the council talked about the site to the north of 10th Avenue, near the soccer complex, which is owned by the city, as one of the options.

Ribich said that one of the recommendations of the 2008 report of the task force was to create one comprehensive site, which would encompass all the diamonds.

“It’s far more economical than chasing around to maintain ball diamonds in different locations,” Ribich said.

Ribich said he feels the council is going in circles.

“There is a report out there, that analyzes the needs and provides potential solutions, this is where Champions Ridge came from,” Ribich said. “From last night, it didn’t appear that they were familiar with it.”