The Waverly City Council on Monday formally approved the location for a youth baseball and softball complex, which could be in operation within the next two years.
In a unanimous vote, the city will begin to develop a parcel it owns along Cedar River Parkway just north of the Waverly Shell Rock Soccer Complex. The proposal calls for a total of eight youth-sized diamonds for players 13 and under for baseball and 14 and under for softball, including a Miracle League field for children with disabilities.
The Ball Diamond Task Force, which has met since late July, presented its recommendation for the site during the Oct. 28 study session. Chairman Jeremy Langner told the council then that the project would be “an opportunity to find some closure to a conversation that has been lingering in our city for quite some time.”
After the approval of the site, the council also unanimously affirmed the continuation of the task force to push forward on preparing documents for the development.
In a memo to the council, Leisure Services Director Garret Riordan wrote that several engineering firms have been in contact with the city about the project, and that requests for proposals have been sent out to them.
But prior to the discussion on the proposal, Edgar Zelle, who was a good friend with the late Neil Smith, made one last appeal to reconsider the Champions Ridge site. Smith, who died in 2013, arranged for his farmland on the western outskirts of Waverly to be sold to the city to be used for youth and adult ball diamonds and the new home for the Bremer County Fair.
“I believe that project had a lot of community support and interest, but I did not really experience the same interest or urgency from many of this administration here in the City of Waverly,” Zelle said during the public comment period of the meeting. That section is intended for items not on the night’s agenda.
Though Zelle was a Lutheran pastor elsewhere, he kept up with how his friend from vocational agriculture classes at then Waverly High School, where they graduated one year apart in the 1940s, handled himself in town. Though Smith had no family, he was concerned about protecting the earth, according to Zelle.
“He was very active in conservation projects, as was evidenced by the terracing of the land, which was set aside for Champions Ridge,” Zelle said. “It was Neil’s love for the community and concern for children that led to his dream of using part of his farm to benefit the community and its children.”
He said momentum for the fundraising for Champions Ridge slowed due to the fact that the city hadn’t yet released the deed to a 40-acre portion of the site to the Bremer County Fair Association after it completed its payments two years ago to buy the site.
In past discussions, city officials had said the deed would be released when the BCFA informed the city when it planned to make its move there and made improvements on the land. However, fair board members countered that they — as many are farmers — ethically cannot make those developments until it has the deed in hand.
“Since the fair board couldn’t proceed with building by not having the deed to the land, the plans were dead for some point,” Zelle said, “and fundraising became difficult.
“I have not heard why the city did not give the deed to the Bremer County Fair (Association) after they had paid for the land, so they could begin the construction. I can only surmise that the city had some hidden plan for the land other than the proper use for Champions Ridge.”
He relayed a rumor he heard that “an individual or perhaps several individuals” had expressed interest in the site and that “the city could sell it to them for a profit,” Zelle claimed. He doubted the veracity of the scuttlebutt.
“If it is (true), the city betrayed Neil Smith,” he said. “Neil acted in good faith. I’m not sure that the city did.”
He hoped that Champions Ridge would survive in some shape after the youth ball complex was approved, namely still have the fair locate there before considering a rumored move to Tripoli. Also, he thought the adult-sized softball diamonds could still be built there along with “a nice recreational vehicle park,” he added.
“I believe the Champions Ridge project in some form still has wide city support,” he said. “If they get a clear shot at it, they can raise the funds to do it. Let’s build it.”
During discussion of the site proposal, At-Large Councilwoman Edith Waldstein took a moment to respond to Zelle’s comments, though normally, that is not done during the public comment time.
Though respecting Zelle’s opinion, Waldstein wanted to express facts.
“I did not know Neil Smith, but in all of the information that I looked at going back over 10 years ago… I never found anywhere where was any record, at least, of Neil Smith wanting ball fields,” Waldstein said. “What I found was that Neil Smith wanted the city to be able to do something productively for the city and for the youth, potentially.”
On a claim that Smith sold the land to the city at a discount, Waldstein countered while the price was “slightly reduced,” it was “close to fair market value.”
“That doesn’t say that Neil Smith wasn’t generous,” she said. “I just want to explain the materials we’re looking at to come to the decision that I did — and others will have to explain how they got to theirs — but it was a vote to discontinue the (development) agreement with Champions Ridge (in March).”
At-Large Councilwoman Ann Rathe added that Smith was generous to the Waverly Senior Center, as she reported on her involvement with that facility’s board.
“We discuss him every time we talk about our budget and charitable contributions,” Rathe said. “He was an altruistic individual, and that is borne out in his contributions there.”
Waldstein said the council had acted in good faith.
“We tried very hard again and again and again to see that beautiful plan come to fruition,” Waldstein said, “and for over a decade, there appeared to be no progress. When we asked for some types of information, it was either very difficult to get it, or we could never get it at all.”
Rathe added that the city had no hidden agenda to resell the land.
“I certainly have seen no evidence of that,” she said. “Maybe I wasn’t even invited to those meetings.
“None of us took pleasure in the fact that that blueprint did not come to fruition.”
Tina Miller, a member of the task force who has 11-year-old twin sons with cerebral palsy, said the parkway complex would meet her kids’ needs, whereas Champions Ridge would not.
“They both use walkers to get around,” Miller said. “Traversing the outdoors and sometimes playing with their friends could at times be very difficult.
“Grass fields, dirt infields and outdated bathrooms and concessions stations make it just about impossible for them to play ball on a real field alongside their peers and friends, just like other kids in town.”
She added though Champions Ridge was a good concept, the terrain made it impossible to support her family’s needs or others like them.
“The entire (parkway) complex is on level ground, and it includes a Miracle Field, that would allow kids of all abilities to not only play but to play together,” she said. “I ask for your support of our recommendation, and don’t just do it for the kids. Please do it for all kids.”
Rathe, who is the council liaison to the task force, agreed with Miller on accessibility.
“I think that the task force has weighed the pros and cons of the new property versus the Champions Ridge site,” she said. “Not only can (Miller’s) kids not play ball, they can’t even go to the ball games. There are not disability-accessible bathrooms, adequate parking or terrain that they could easily use their walkers to walk across.
“I think we have a great opportunity to make a fresh start and have these ball diamonds within 18 months to 24 months, fundraising and Mother Nature permitting, but I think we need to move forward.”
Waldstein, continuing her comments in response to Zelle, said approving the parkway site will help regain lost progress to get new youth ball fields built.
“If this doesn’t gain momentum either, then we’ve got to look for something else,” she said, “but I think to wait another 12 years to get ball diamonds going, for whether it’s for a Miracle Field for our handicapped children or our special-needs children, or whether it’s just getting decent fields in place for all of our youth is really, really important. We need to be moving ahead on that.”