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July 14, 2013

Developer hopes to strike a home run with local baseball franchise

ELKHART — If you build it, will they come?

Craig Wallin certainly hopes so.

Wallin’s hope is to bring professional baseball to Elkhart County with a franchise in the reborn Northern League. The team, the Elkhart County Miracle, would begin playing in 2014.

On a recent warm summer morning, an enthusiastic Wallin, president of CTT Communications, walked around the piece of property at the former American Countryside Farmer’s Market location along C.R. 26 and outlined the scope of his project.

The property right now is a vacant lot; recycling bins and a parking lot stand where the future ballpark will be. Home plate will be about 200 feet north of the back door of the farmers market building, just beyond where the paved parking lot ends. A few more tweaks may happen as final ballpark plans are finalized over the coming months, Wallin said.

It’s always been Wallin’s dream to bring a baseball team to the area. Wallin said he hopes to use his experience in the sport — he is a former director of broadcasting for what was then known as the South Bend White Sox — to build a successful franchise here.

“I really got the bug then,” Wallin said. “Riding on the bus with the team, seeing the stadiums.”

The idea of a minor league team for Elkhart County came to Wallin about five years ago, he said. He contacted the Northwoods League, a summer collegiate wood bat league, and briefly pursued the idea of bringing a team into that league. But with no adequate facility in the area and the economy struggling at that time, that plan fell through.

Wallin looked at a list of 10 properties in the county for a stadium location and eventually pared that down to three — one of which was the farmers market property. A zoning request was denied for a property in Bristol, and Wallin eventually decided to purchase the farmers market property.

Wallin intends to purchase 15 acres at the moment, including the farmers market building. Wallin intends to incorporate the existing building into the stadium project, with team offices, the clubhouse and training facilities housed there. About an additional seven acres of land will need to be acquired to complete the stadium project, he said. The entire project will encompass about 25 acres.

The purchase is still in progress, Wallin said, with a mid-October closing anticipated.

The plan is for construction to start later this summer, with play in the new Northern League starting in late May or early June of 2014, Wallin said.

“There are still some steps to be taken,” Wallin said, including the process of getting construction permits.

When the project was originally envisioned several years ago, Wallin had received $5 million in Elkhart County Recovery Zone Facility Bonds for the stadium. But Wallin said those funds are now off the table and the $12 million project — with its 1,600-seat stadium — will be privately funded.  

“It’s all private at this point, but we have a passion for nonprofits, and we’re open to grant possibilities,” Wallin said.

But some form of assistance may be requested, he indicated. Preliminary discussions have been held with the Economic Development Corp. of Elkhart County, he added.  

 

The new league

New Northern League Commissioner Dan Evans has known Wallin since the late 1980s, when he was an assistant general manager for the Chicago White Sox and Wallin working for its Class A affiliate in South Bend.

“I have known Craig Wallin for 25 years and he is a big reason why I wanted to move forward with this franchise,” Evans said. “His character is impeccable, while his overall vision and feel for doing things right are exceptional, making him an ideal partner for the Northern League.”

Evans said he is confident baseball can succeed in Elkhart County. “I have traveled to northern Indiana countless times and I know that professional baseball will not merely be well received, but will thrive in Elkhart. During my last visit there I heard the fans excitement firsthand.”

Elkhart County is well-positioned geographically to support a successful franchise, Evans said.

“I believe that Elkhart County may be one of our league’s best strategic locations given that 21 million people live within 150 miles of the franchise,” Evans said.

The Elkhart County Miracle is the first franchise awarded in the new league. Other franchises are expected to be announced soon.

The Northern League is owned by D.C. Sports and Entertainment, a New York-based sports management firm. Chairman Nick Derosiers said league officials are hoping to have 10 to 12 teams for the inaugural season of the reborn league. A season consisting of somewhere between 90 and 100 games is planned.

Derosiers said the league’s financial standards for prospective owners are confidential, but in general terms, league officials are looking for financially stable owners, with liquid assets and the ability to perhaps sustain a brief period of losses as the new league gets established.

Owners must also come up with a $250,00 franchise fee, Derosiers said.

Wallin said he expects to have to pay that fee before the team begins operations for the inaugural season.

Wallin also said he expects to serve as the general manager of the new baseball franchise himself, and one of his first tasks is going to be hiring a field manager.

Significant startup costs are expected, Wallin said, with about $6.6 million going to construct the stadium itself and pay for the farmers market property. The private fundraising he is working on now will be geared toward funding the team’s first year of operating costs.

An approximate $2 million annual budget is anticipated, Wallin said.

As far as players, Wallin said the new league will look for players with some professional experience. He said he’s already been contacted by several players expressing interest in trying out.

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