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If you build it, do it locally

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | APRIL 12, 2012 6:30 AM

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The location of the 1989 classic film Field of Dreams in Dyersville, Iowa is looking to get an extreme makeover. On April 4, the Iowa House passed a measure that would provide a 5 percent sales-tax rebate to the developers of a new baseball complex and lodge at the iconic site, amounting to a $16.5 million tax rebate for a $38 million investment.

But many in the small town are worried that the project will do more harm than good, that expectations are too high, and that the state investment can't be repaid. As this bill goes to receive the final signature, Gov. Terry Branstad should strike it down and defer to Dyersville's residents.

The current owners, Don and Becky Lansing, were willing to sell their 193-acre property for a myriad of reasons. Lasing's family has had the farm property for more than a century, and he grew up in the two-bedroom house right off the baseball field. He has owned the field only since 2008 after settling a feud with previous owner Wayne Ameskamp.

Lansing maintained the field and attracted tourists to the site, with up to 65,000 visitors attending some years. But now that Lansing is retired, he decided that its time for someone else to take the reins.

"We really have been aware all these years that the field has to grow in some capacity," Lasing's wife told the New York Times in October 2011. "We have done what we needed to do with the field. We nurtured and protected it and [will] allow the field to become all it is meant to be."

Mike and Denise Stillman are the prospective buyers of the Field of Dreams property. They have been in negotiations with the Lansings since 2010 under the name of Go the Distance Baseball LLC, and they have worked with the head groundskeeper for the Chicago White Sox on designing a baseball complex that would rival some major-league parks.

The "All-Star Ballpark Heaven" will require the entire property plus some surrounding land to build 24 baseball and softball diamonds, an indoor training facility, and lodging, all in order to attract teams to hold major tournaments. The project is expected to create more than 500 jobs and generate $47 million in economic activity from the tens of thousands of tourists who should flock to the area.

This seems like a win-win situation from the numbers — but when you hear the criticisms of Dyersville residents, it's easy to see how this large plan for a small town could be disastrous.

One of the biggest concerns is the loss of the nostalgia and magic that the Field of Dreams has in its current state. Somehow, without advertisement or any true marketing strategy, tens of thousands flock to the site as if it were a religious sanctuary. There isn't much to do there besides playing a game of catch on a former movie set, but that the movie touched the hearts of so many people makes it popular.

Many, including Dyersville Mayor Jim Heavens, see this change as more negative than positive. There are surely some that will see these changes and be turned off by the new complex, and because of this, the approximate attendance figures could be very inaccurate.

Ameskamp has also been extremely vocal about the possible effect the complex will have on the area farmers. In his eyes, the construction will damage the farmland or even put it out of production entirely. With a sprawl of urbanization from the complex and surrounding restaurants and lodging, it could interfere with farmers' ability to employ pesticides that could harm people and the property.

"Don't let them build these baseball diamonds out in the country, take our farmland out of production, and ruin our piece of heaven," Ameskamp said at a Dyersville City Council meeting in February.  

There are strong opinions on both sides of this debate, sharply dividing the supporters and critics of the project and pitting brother against brother in rural Iowa.

This is why Branstad should not sign the bill into law but rather leave the matter up to the Dyersville community. If this project turns out to be a failure, it will leave Iowa taxpayers indebted to the tune of millions of dollars. There are other governmental responsibilities that are desperate for funding that could use this money more effectively.

If the state refrains from providing the tax rebate, there will be $16.5 million unallocated in the coffers that could go to other fledgling projects. In fact, it could nearly cover the $20 million increase in Board of Regents' funding that Branstad is fighting for.

And best of all, the local members of the community get to decide, not the politicians in Des Moines — a local decision for a local project.

Let Dyersville build it and get on with other work.


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