With attendance down and top users moving elsewhere, JoCo parks officials fret about condition of county-run sports complexes

The fields at Heritage Park are idle this year after Heartland Soccer Association moved its practices and tournaments to other facilities. Photo credit Roxie Hammill.

A Shawnee parent watching a coach-pitch game breaks off from answering a question about what he’d like to see done to the Mid-America West sports complex. He’d been talking about how he’d like to see the gravelly infield surface replaced.

“That stuff hurts. When a kid goes down, it’s pretty rough,” says Brian Stinnett of Shawnee. But just then a group of kids along the right field fence line catches his eye. One, who looks to be 5 or 6 years old, has just finished peeing against the chain link.

“How about restrooms a little closer? That would be an improvement,” he chuckles.

The condition of the county-run sports complexes at Mid-America and Heritage Park is no laughing matter for park district officials, though. A study of the fields that were once a unique draw in this area concludes the facilities “look and feel worn out.” Overall attendance is down. Big users are moving elsewhere.

Park officials fear that if they don’t do something soon, more teams will begin to leave, taking their tournaments, field rental fees and the $10 million per year economic boost they give to Johnson County hotels and retail with them.

“Our fields are well worn out these days,” said Steve Baru, chairman of the county park board. “There are a lot of facilities that are more modern and offer more amenities than we are able to do at the moment.”

Johnson County Parks Director Jill Geller, seen here in a file photo, says the loss of the Heartland Soccer Association at Heritage Park was a “huge eye-opener.”

The exodus away from Johnson County has already begun, said park district director Jill Geller. The county recently lost the World Fastpitch Championship, a tournament of 130 teams from 36 states, to a more modern facility in Florida because of the condition of the fields. Organizers told her they preferred the central location of Kansas City and would like to return if the fields are fixed up.

Meanwhile the Heartland Soccer Association, which bills itself as America’s largest soccer league and tournament host, has stopped playing games and practices at Heritage Soccer Park. Heartland, based in Overland Park, has been the primary user at Heritage for about 30 years. The fields are now idle.

Geller called those losses “a huge eye-opener.”

But the cost of doing everything to get the fields up to date is eye-popping. A study by Kansas City-based Clark Enersen Partners cites modernizing the lighting, fencing, parking lots, restrooms and concessions – and most of all, artificial turf – to bring them up to the same standards as newer facilities in Kansas City, Kan., Olathe and Swope Park. If everything were to be done, the study estimated the eventual cost would be close to $98 million. Park district officials figure they can get it down to $70 million.

The study looked at six fields run by the county: Football, soccer and softball fields at Heritage Park (located at 159th and Pflumm in Olathe), the two Mid-America complexes and soccer fields in Thomas S. Stoll Memorial Park (on 119th Street, adjacent to JCCC).

Participation at those parks dropped from over 1.1 million in 2015 to 868,000 in 2018 according to the study.

But with improvements, park officials said, the use could be expanded to 1.4 million, bringing economic impact from $10 million to $43 million a year.

Small fixes help — but to-do list is long

The county has been able to do some small fixes on the fields in recent seasons. Early this year, the county replaced and added new backstop netting and did some work on the dugouts and bleachers at Mid-America sports complexes. Parents at a recent game night there said they appreciated that. But just the same, they didn’t have difficulty coming up with other things that needed fixing.

Audrey Peery, watching her daughter play fast-pitch with the Shawnee Blaze, said malfunctioning scoreboards are especially vexing during tournaments because usually only one scoreboard works. The fields also tend to stay wet, she said. And then having a deeper outfield would help during competitive games, where the ball is apt to travel farther, she said.

At the Heritage soccer fields, the issue has always been worn patches of grass, especially in front of the goal and at center field.

Right from the start, the soccer fields’ popularity was a mixed blessing, Geller said. “We’ve known for several years we need to take some measures to get those fields improved,” she said. “But the popularity of soccer and lack of other places to play really didn’t allow us to close down the fields without closing down soccer leagues.”

A typical Saturday would have fields busy from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tournament play kept most fields in use, even though groundskeepers did their best to rotate, said Shannon Sonnier, assistant superintendent of recreation. Hot and dry summer months did not help.

Heritage has been idle since October. This fall the county will move its recreational teams with about 800 players who are now using Stoll Park to the Heritage fields.

There has been no major investment in the parks since the 1980s, when Heritage was built and the county took over the Mid-America fields, according to the Enersen study. The fields also need to expand to accommodate the county’s growing population. Expansion plus lighting that would allow the soccer fields to be open later could more than double attendance, the study said.

Central location makes KC area popular location for tournaments

When the facilities first came on line, they were a rarity in the Kansas City area. But since then, competition has arisen. Overland Park built a soccer complex with artificial turf. (Six of the fields were updated in 2017 and the other six got new surfaces last year at a total cost of $4.75 million, according to Overland Park officials — but they may need to be resurfaced again by 2025). Newer on the scene are the Olathe, Kansas City, Kan. and Swope Park.

Even so, Geller said she doesn’t believe the area has too many fields, judging by how busy they are. Kansas City is an attractive place for national sports tournaments because of its central location, she said. And parents who are now driving across Kansas City to their kids’ games may want to return to Heritage if the fields are perked up.

The newer facilities have whetted an appetite for artificial turf as well, as park officials look at the difficulties of keeping the grass even and well drained. Replacing the grass with synthetic turf would be expensive, but might even out in the long run with lower maintenance costs, Geller said.

Park officials want to do that, but the question now is how. The park board asked for a 0.6 mill increase during budget talks this spring with the county commission, which would have raised $6.5 million a year.

The idea didn’t get any traction with the commission, however. The county just raised the mill levy in 2015 for, among other things, the park district and new libraries, and commissioners questioned the need for another one so soon.

Baru and park officials point out that the focus back then had been mostly on getting undeveloped parks like Big Bull Creek and Cedar Niles open to the public. The increase approved for parks that year would not have allowed for much on the sports fields until at least 2025, Geller said.

The district could always go ahead and ask voters for a tax rate increase, anyway. It has that power. But Baru said the park board prefers to work through the commission. So a vote won’t come up this year.

‘We’ve got to take care of these sports fields’

Commissioner Steve Klika.

County Commissioner Steve Klika, who also sits on the park district board, said the sports facilities are too important an asset to let go. The district should ask voters next year, if a solution isn’t found by next year’s budget, he said.

“We’ve got to take care of these sports fields,” Klika said, calling the millions of dollars returned on the investment “a wise move.”

Other commissioners said the park district needs a better handle on how to go about such a large project and keep costs under control. Commissioners Mike Brown and Jim Allen suggested that hotels directly affected by the loss of tournaments might be willing to help with raising the money. Overland Park’s Scheels Soccer Complex was paid for with revenue from a hotel tax.

In the meantime, the county park board will be looking at every option on how to get started on the improvements without a tax rate increase this year, Geller said. Board members have discussed installing artificial turf gradually, perhaps just on the infields of the ball diamonds at first. Or, “we could restore the natural grass as best we can, but that would be just kicking the can down the road,” she said.

The end result could also be delays in other park improvements, such as the trails.

“I’m worried about trail development,” Baru said. The board has gotten a lot of feedback from people who want more dog parks and wider trails with fewer conflicts between walkers and bicyclists, he said.

Allen said he’d like to see the sports fields brought up to date, but “sometimes 75 percent of something is better than 100 percent of nothing.” If the district is willing to cut back its plan and look for more outside funding, “hopefully by this time next year we will have a more positive outlook.”