Bemidji's new softball facility at City Park represents a 100 percent improvement: New fields working
BEMIDJI - For two years, the Bemidji Area Softball Association hasn't had a place to play. Instead of playing in the centrally-located City Park in Bemidji, the league for two years played its games in Cass Lake.
But league director David White isn't complaining. His league's temporary displacement was because the park was undergoing a massive facelift.
"This is 100 percent better than what we had before," White said. "I think redoing these fields was very helpful to the city and the community."
The new facility, which now has four fields instead of three as well as a brand-new concession area and parking lot, hosts many events. But the BASA is one of its biggest users.
The league boasts 59 teams, playing five nights a week. With about 14 players per team, that's more than 800 people using the softball fields a week.
The park, which also includes a new skate park and an outdoor hockey facility, completely shut down to begin construction in 2010. But planning stages started as early as 2008 when the city realized the park needed an upgrade.
It was badly needed, according to Bemidji Parks and Recreation director Marcia Larson.
"It became very obvious that we needed to add a field," Larson said. "The lighting was poor and there were lots of turf issues. They needed a lot of work."
"There were lots of problems," White added. White has been the league director of the softball association since 1998. The league had played at the fields at City Park for a long time but the complex grew to be inadequate for the league's needs.
"We had three fields, all with the same fence," White said. "There was a pole in dead center and lights right behind the pitcher."
The lights gave a yellowish-orange haze more akin to streetlamps than to floodlights normally used for evening sporting events. It made hitting the ball a difficult task.
Two of the fields had fences of 260 feet - child's play for men's league softball. The third was at 275. Players would routinely have to stop games and duck for cover when they saw home runs coming from the other field because they shared a fence.
The league played on the fields because they had few options. But when the city approved a half-cent sales tax for the parks and trails system, refurbishing City Park became a reality.
The voter-approved tax was for $9.8 million. Larson said the total cost of the City Park project was around $3.5 million.
Although Diamond Point Park was first on the list, City Park was the other obvious candidate for improvements.
"It had been recognized for a long time," Larson said. "After we decided to refurbish (Diamond Point), we started the redesign of the City Park."
One major point of contention was Carrington Field, the baseball diamond that also occupied City Park.
"It was an issue with some of the baseball people," White said. "They didn't want to give it up. Nothing against the baseball people, because they don't have an ideal situation right now. But we were going four or five nights a week during the summer. They only used that field maybe 12 or 14 days total."
The Bemidji City Council eventually agreed on a plan to relocate Carrington Field to the new North Country Park along 30th Street Northwest.
The revamped fields - which officially opened in late summer 2011, too late for the softball league to play there - have just about everything that the old fields lacked.
"There were no dugouts before, just basically a bench," White said. "Now they have dugouts on every field with roofs and everything.
"There are also a lot of new safety things that helped," he added, noting that the fences are all at least seven feet tall around the fields so it's harder for line foul balls to hit spectators.
That's not to say there aren't some kinks to work out.
"We're working with the softball league and everyone else who uses the park," Larson said. "It's still kind of a learning year for us to figure out other things people want and need."
"The city's been real helpful and very cooperative with us," White added. "There might be a few things to fix... like bathroom location and things like that, but it's minor stuff. They've been great."
The league will host its first major tournament - the City Slam - July 21-22. It will be an open invitational for any team that wants to sign up, and all proceeds for the tournament will be directed to the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Aside from the softball, the most important thing for both White and Larson is that everyone - not just softball players - can enjoy the park.
So far, it's a big passing grade.
"It's a very fun atmosphere now," White said. "We never had anything like it. When this place is full, it's hopping."
Larson said that might be due to the fact that the park is now a true community park and not just a softball and baseball complex.
"That's what's great about it. Now people can bring their families and have things for them to do," she said, noting the skate park and the brand-new playground equipment.
"It's just awesome for us. There's nothing better when you build a park or facility that is used a lot by everyone. It's just really fun to see."