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Field of Dreams

The inspiring true story of how a community worked together to save the storied tradition of Little League baseball on the South Side.

by: Tim Stephens & Jack Houvouras

As you drive by Huntington's brand new Little League 3 baseball fields, you will probably still smell paint drying and hear hammers banging as the work crews put the final touches on phase one of this state of the art complex. What you won't see, hear or smell is the significant amount of time and energy that was put into these fields by several key people before the first roll of sod was placed or the first row of masonry block was laid. Most people are unaware of the hard work that went into the pair of baseball diamonds including countless hours of negotiations with large corporations, weeks of conforming to environmental regulations, and months of engineering and planning. The story of how this community rallied to build a "Field of Dreams" for its local youth is one that is not only inspiring, but also a testament to what can happen when people work together. This is their story and it deserves to be told.

Little League 3 Team

After the Cabell County Board of Education announces their plans to consolidate the Cammack/West school system, Todd Shell and John Brunetti (board members and coaches of League 3) begin to discuss the ramifications of what this will do to the Cammack baseball facility which had been the home of Little League on Huntington's South Side since 1951. Within days, both men are notified that there won't be enough open land to keep the fields, threatening the long history of what local residents called a "cornerstone of the community."

With knowledge that league consolidation substantially reduces participation in youth sports, both men decide that they will have to come up with a plan to save the league.

Little League 3

First, they need to find land within the league boundary line. Second, they need a substantial amount of money to build a new facility because both agree that if the project cannot be completed in a first class fashion, it will not be worth starting. Finally, the men realize that they will need countless hours of donated time from experts in the fields of engineering and construction to even put together a "snapshot" budget. Enter Jerry Straub, a professional engineer and grandfather of five Little League players, and C.R. Neighborgall, President of Neighborgall Construction and League 3 coach. Both men agree to join the newly-named "Save League 3" team.

It doesn't take long to find the land. The former Owens Illinois Glass Factory, which had been boarded up and then donated to the City of Huntington, is right on the League 3 boundary line. And it's for sale. Atria Senior Living had purchased the property from the City to build a facility. However, shortly after the purchase, the company was acquired and the plans for expansion into West Virginia were dropped.

But there is a problem. The land is contaminated (the land is the former Owens broken glass dumpsite) and is being monitored by the West Virginia Department of Environmental of Protection (WVDEP).

Problem two, the purchase price is way too high. Within 30 days, Shell and Brunetti make hundreds of phone calls and sit in on countless meetings. The men learn that a remediation plan that includes the creation of a new "green space" is the perfect project for the land. The WVDEP is in full support of the project and offers any and all assistance to get the project started.

As Shell and Brunetti begin to negotiate with Owens regarding remediation costs and Atria regarding land purchase price, Straub begins the process of designing the new ballpark facility. As Straub completes drawings, Neighborgall puts a dollar figure on the plans. By December 2005, the rough figures are estimated. Total project cost is estimated at nearly $2 million (including land remediation cost estimated at $550,000).

The easy part is over. The plans are complete. Time is now an issue. Both Straub and Neighborgall believe the project will take at least 18 months to complete once started. All four men are notified that the new school construction will begin on June 1, 2007, 18 months away. They are already behind schedule with no money, land or agreements in place. It's time to roll up their sleeves and get to work.

Little League 3

Shell and Brunetti have negotiated numerous transactions throughout their careers, but this deal is a little different. It's not just about numbers -- it's about kids. It's also about transforming contaminated land into a recreational area, improving the community, and enhancing nearby Ritter Park.

From January to October 2006, Shell and Brunetti hold negotiations with Owens and Atria. Conference calls, meetings, and emails are exchanged back and forth for months. But there is no progress. With only seven months until the new school construction is set to begin, the men are about to call it quits when they receive an important phone call. Owens verbally approves the expenditure for the 2007 fiscal year and all that is needed now is board approval that would come in January 2007. Shell contacts Atria Senior Living and informs them that they will not have any environmental liability with Owens agreeing to remediate the parcel. He then asks them to take a harder look at their selling price for the land. Atria agrees to make a final decision by March 2007.

Re-energized and excited, the men officially announce to the League 3 board that they intend to begin the fund raising portion of the project. Their only problem is that under their original fundraising plan, they had allotted themselves 12 months to raise their portion of the project, estimated at $650,000. They had also agreed that they would only begin construction if they had secured at least $450,000 in donations by April 2007. And they still had yet to purchase the land.

Little League 3

Embarking on a fundraising campaign during the holiday season makes things tough. The men realize very quickly that bake sales will not get them to their goal. Brunetti concentrates his time on doing presentations to any civic group that will listen. Meanwhile, Shell concentrates his efforts on business donations, state funding and grant funding. Straub and Neighborgall focus on identifying local suppliers that will either donate material or provide items at their lowest cost.

The rest of the League 3 team then joins the campaign, as thousands of brochures are hand delivered door to door by kids, parents and League 3 alumni. Even David Glick, the heart and soul of Little League baseball in Huntington for the last 42 years, joins the effort as a full community effort begins.

By February 2007, the combined efforts produce results. The league raises over $200,000 in pledges or cash donations. They secure over $100,000 in cost savings by identifying pledges of materials. Finally, the big hurdle is passed on February 17, 2007 when Major League Baseball's Baseball Tomorrow Fund informs League 3 that they will grant funding for the lights for both fields, saving the league an estimated $150,000.

Little League 3

The project is now a go! They still have to buy the land but don't want to use up the money raised for construction on the fields. Enter the West Virginia delegates from the 15th and 16th districts as Doug Reynolds and Kevin Craig lend their political clout. They are followed by State Senators Bob Plymale and Evan Jenkins, and within a matter of weeks these leaders find $100,000 in additional funding through Governor Joe Manchin's Community Grant Program. The league is then notified by the Governor's office that it will take several months to receive the funds, but locally-owned First Sentry Bank steps up and offers to loan the league the money in order to get the project started.

By March 2007, Shell informs Atria that everything needed to begin the project is in place except for an affordable land purchase price. Like a wish come true, Atria agrees to substantially reduce the purchase price and work as quickly as possible to complete the legal work so they can begin the remediation phase which is just two weeks away. With an e-mailed legal document and a money transfer, the construction phase of the project will start within 10 days of the closing. Luckily, the remediation process is completed in record time due to unseasonably dry weather and excellent work performed by Shaw Environmental. By June 1, the remediation is complete and League 3 begins the construction phase of the project.

In July, League 3 completes their final year at Cammack. Almost like a story too good to be true, the Goldsmit Syndor little league team from League 3 managed by Brunetti, Shell, and Neighborgall wins the city championship. As if that isn't enough, the 11-12 year old All-Star team managed by Shell and Neighborgall wins League 3's first district championship in 30 years as Shell's oldest son Blake smacks a 275-foot homerun in the title game.

Little League 3

As the baseball season ends, construction at the new ball fields is underway at light speed. Work continues through winter, and by early spring the facility is ready to open. The first season at League 3 is a tremendous success as both the kids and parents love the new fields. The beauty of the first-class facility shocks guests. League 3 finishes its inaugural season by hosting the 10-11 year old state tournament, an event that brought over 800 people to Huntington for seven days, filling our hotels, stores and restaurants. If you build it they will come.

The next time you drive by League 3 near the Memorial Arch on Huntington's South Side, stop and take a look at how easily it blends with the park system. Understand that before these fields were built, four men (as well as countless other volunteers and concerned citizens) dedicated almost two years of their lives before any tangible evidence of their efforts was physically in place. Their goal was simple -- save League 3. But these men not only saved League 3, they preserved a proven community youth sports program and transformed a contaminated dump site into useful recreational green space. And in doing so, they also made a positive economic impact on our community that should reap benefits for years to come.

Today, you will find these men still working at the complex either coaching, maintaining the grounds or raising additional funds to pay off the remaining $200,000 borrowed from First Sentry Bank.

If you would like to help League 3 reach its final goal, you can make a tax-deductible donation to the cause. Please use the envelope provided in this magazine on page 37. Make checks payable to: League 3 Ballpark Fund. For more information visit www.littleleague3.com.

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