'Field Of Dreams' neighbors worried about development proposal

Project could ruin site's nostalgic feel, some say

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April 3, 2014 | 2:19 pm

Should we build it, and would they come?

Those are the questions being debated in the Iowa town where the "Field of Dreams" movie was filmed as it considers a $38 million proposal to turn the farmland around the famous cornfield diamond into one of the nation's largest youth baseball tournament and training complexes.

An Illinois couple has announced plans to buy the farmhouse and baseball field featured in the 1989 film, along with surrounding land, to build the "All-Star Ballpark Heaven," a complex of 24 baseball and softball diamonds, an indoor training facility and lodging that would draw teams from all around to compete in major tournaments.

While the project could provide an economic jolt and breathe new life into Dyersville's most valuable asset, it has unleashed fierce emotions that have pitted neighbors against each other and raised difficult questions for leaders of the town of 4,000. Should the city extend water and sewer service to make the project viable? Would enough people come to make it succeed? And if so, would the development ruin the nostalgic, country feel that made this part of rural Iowa a draw in the first place?

"This is one of those projects that has a high risk, but a high reward," said Jim Heavens, a cattle nutritionist who has been the city's part-time mayor for nine years. "If everything goes according to Hoyle, it would be a boom for the town and a boom for the state and do something nice for youth. If it doesn't work out, there's going to be a lot of pieces to pick up."

Dyersville, surrounded by lush farmland in the hills 30 miles west of Dubuque, has barely grown in recent decades and some residents say that's fine. The town has low unemployment and low taxes.

Since the movie was filmed, about a farmer who builds a baseball field that attracts the ghosts of Shoeless Joe Jackson and other White Sox players banned for throwing the 1919 World Series, the farm has attracted a stream of visitors despite few amenities: a house that is usually closed and a well-kept baseball field surrounded by corn. One of the most popular activities is a simple game of catch at the site. But some businesses and attractions, such as the National Farm Toy Museum, got used to the tourism and were hurt when it began to drop in recent years. Two years ago, owners Don and Becky Lansing put the farm up for sale.

The most vocal opposition to the proposed development comes from a small group of the farmers who raise cattle and pigs and grow corn and soybeans nearby. They worry the 193-acre project, expected to draw caravans of players and families every year, would disrupt their rural life. They worry about driving farm equipment in the traffic, and whether they'll face regulations on spraying crops and spreading manure with so many children nearby.

Wayne Ameskamp, whose family sold its portion of the movie site to the Lansings in 2008 after years of feuding between the families over its use, has spoken out in public and private meetings with city officials and neighbors. "Don't let them build these baseball diamonds out in the country and take our farmland out of production and ruin our piece of heaven," he told the city council recently. He worries his family would no longer be able to peacefully gather around a fire at its private campsite, nicknamed "Hillbilly Heaven."

Jeff Pape, whose family farm dates to 1851, said he worries the development, if done incorrectly, could "totally destroy" years of work by farmers to reduce runoff and pollution in a creek running through the site.

Investors Mike and Denise Stillman came up with the idea for the baseball complex in 2010 after Mike, a lawyer, and his son, then 8, stopped to play catch on the way home from a Minnesota Twins game. As planned, it would join a handful of such complexes in the U.S., including one near the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

The site would create hundreds of jobs in restaurants, lodging and recreation in a six-county region, according to a study commissioned by developers. Up to 1,500 families of players aged 8 through 14 would trek to the site weekly for camps and tournaments, the study said.

Many neighbors are skeptical about those figures. And some employers who already have difficulty finding workers wonder about the impact on the labor pool.

"I have to take the Stillmans' word that these people are really out there," Pape said. "If they do come and tourism comes back, they'll be heroes."

For the Stillmans, who watched "Field of Dreams" on one of their first dates, the neighbors are one of many hurdles. The couple is lobbying for a bill to allow the site to keep the sales tax charged on merchandise for 10 years up to $16 million. Some lawmakers oppose the plan.

The Stillmans say they need to raise $18 million to make the development viable, and have an approaching deadline to decide whether to exercise their right to purchase. If they move forward, Dyersville would need to annex and rezone land and build water and sewer lines to the site. Heavens said that project could cost $7 million, more than initially expected.

Denise Stillman, who quit her health care consulting business to run the development startup, Go the Distance LLC, said she's confident about the project. "There's too many stars aligned for it to not happen," she said.

Jacque Rahe, a neighbor who leads the Dyersville Economic Development Corporation, calls the project "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" that has been disparaged by misinformation.

"No one realized what the movie would mean to us and it has far exceeded our expectations," said Rahe, whose husband was a member of the Ghost Players comedy troupe that performed at the farm. "Now, almost 25 years later, it's time for a boost. There's a whole new generation of people who don't have a strong connection to the 'Field of Dreams' and need to be introduced to it."

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