The Robert’s Stadium Ball Field Questions


Should Evansville Bet the Farm on Youth Baseball and Softball?

By: Joe J. Wallace, Hadannah Business Solutions

My friend Steve Lowell Smith, Candidate for State Representative from District 78 and I attended the public forum together regarding the proposal to construct 8 baseball fields on the Robert’s Stadium site. We stuck it out to the end of what turned out to be a 6 1/2 hour meeting that was at times torturous and at other times the best entertainment in Downtown Evansville on a Wednesday night. I can’t speak for Steve but I learned many things about the project and the people who showed up to share their opinions.

I was pleased at the level of transparency that David Dunn and his experts gave when questions were asked. Many times the answers were “I don’t know”, “no, we did not consider that”, or even “no, but thank you for the suggestion”. This was not back room politics in action as we have become accustomed to and even as this particular project is reported to have been for the past year. This was an interactive community forum and people were for the most part attentive and respectful.

Act One: David Dunn and the Scientists

The show was opened up by David Dunn’s PowerPoint presentation that has been posted on the Evansville Convention and Visitors Bureau (ECVB) website for some time now. After his well rehearsed presentation, Mr. Dunn called upon a battery of seasoned engineers from the Evansville engineering firm of Bernardin, Lochmueller and Associates (BLA) to instruct the assembly of citizens on the environmental concerns that have been expressed with respect to the effects that the ball fields may have on Wesselman Park. I hold a Master’s in Engineering and completely understood the presentations that included tutorials on sound pressure measurement, decibels, logarithms, attenuation, light pollution, drainage, plants that survive in rain gardens and suppress fertilizer migration, and high tech synthetic turf. I gave me flashbacks of Dr. Hartsaw’s classes at UE and Dr. Pauling’s lectures at Stanford. It also reminded me of why I slept in a class or two and took much liberty when it came to class attendance.

Engineering is a dry subject even to engineers. Most of the attendees did not come to this meeting for the purpose of being lectured on how to measure sound pressure and add logarithms. Many of the attendees were annoyed by the nature and length of the presentations and became agitated and restless. There was even an outburst or two to spice things up. The people were fully justified in their restlessness. It is important to prepare for the audience that one will be addressing and there was no reason to expect that many of the attendees would have either an interest or an understanding of advanced engineering details. Some recordings and a few pictures could have made the point sufficiently to the residents and environmentalists who came for a much different purpose.

I am convinced at this point that the noise, light, traffic, etc. will not be made worse at Wesselman Park due to this project. The staff of BLS was both comprehensive and detailed in presenting their findings. With the last logarithmic graph, act one was concluded and it was time for the citizens of Evansville to have their say. Thirty five people including myself signed up to speak.

Act Two: The Citizens Speak

There were two distinct and separate types of speakers with opinions and esoteric information that they could not wait to share. On the left were the people mostly from the neighborhoods around Roberts who were there to oppose the proposed ball fields. On the right were representatives of groups that have endorsed the proposal, the most notable of which was Dr. Vince Bertrum, Superintendent of the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation who along with a posse of EVSC administrators and some youth sports coaches expressed support for the proposed ball fields. Let the games begin.

If I thought that the engineering lectures were a challenge, I was certainly not prepared for what followed. The citizens of Evansville who spoke were for the most part well prepared with arguments of many types including one gentleman who delivered a lecture on the far reaching effects of the extinction of the Dodo Bird on the plant life of the Mauritius Islands. The lesson he taught was that messing with Mother Nature can sometimes have catastrophic unintended consequences. One elderly lady delivered a long lecture on the history of how Wesselman Park and Woods came to be. She started in the late 1700’s and ended on Wednesday night. Perhaps the most entertaining speaker from the opposition was a spirited lady who had a shirt that had “It’s a Dunn Deal” written on the back. She approached Mr. Dunn from the lectern and let him know that she had immortalized him with that shirt before delivering an unexpectedly entertaining lecture on how a mother hawk controlled pigeons in Downtown Evansville until the hawk’s habitat was destroyed. This lady was a master communicator and taught with humor and enthusiasm. She closed with an innovative solution on how to save money on tearing down Robert’s Stadium by putting pictures of hated people on the walls and letting people wail away with sledge hammers.

It would be easy for some to be dismissive of the 25 plus people who spoke in opposition to the proposal and some did speak in a dismissive tone. That was a mistake. These are people who love their homes, their neighborhood, Wesselman Park, and the City of Evansville. They took the time to prepare, endured the science lectures, and delivered their positions with passion and common sense. Flaunting the fruits of noble birth and rubbing the salt into the earth has no place in community forums. These people deserve respect most of them earned mine.

Act Three: The Finances

I see at this point how what has been widely characterized as “just 8 ball fields” can be enhanced enough to cost $18 Million. The story boards and renderings look first class. If built, this Park will be quite pleasant. I can see where it would cost $18 Million to construct what has been proposed.

If Evansville ever becomes a wealthy city and $18 million is simply pocket change, I will be on board to support this proposal. Evansville however is not affluent and nothing is on the economic horizon to change that status, so financially I am still among the bearish skeptics. If Evansville proceeds with this, all of our eggs and all of our future eggs from a tourism attraction perspective will be in the youth baseball and softball basket.

That financial reality came out during questioning when it was revealed that $18 million is essentially the maximum amount of money that the ECVB is capable of borrowing based on the $1.5 million per year that is projected to be available from the innkeeper’s tax. The proposal is to max the ECVB credit card out to do this project. No funds will be available for other projects for many years if the choice to proceed with this proposal is made. One may ask exactly what opportunities we may miss out on if we do this. The answer is all of them.

Further questioning with respect to security features, number of bleachers, etc. lead to the obvious conclusion that this Park is not yet designed to the point that a believable quote is in anyone’s hand. Knowing that, what happens if there are cost overruns? What happens if the $18 million is not enough money to complete the project and the project is not finished when credit limit is reached and the next charge gets declined. That is a real concern with a higher than acceptable probability of occurring.
There needs to be a substantive quote on the renderings with the not yet designed safety features, bleachers, etc. in place. We do not want to be sold on a first class park only to have the rug pulled out from under us after construction has begun and settle for a ho-hum park. We have been down that path already this year with the Executive Inn’s disappearing stars and the failure of the financing. It has been over two years since we were seduced by beautiful renderings of a 4-Star hotel costing $35 Million fully financed by private money. We learned last month that the renderings and announcements of 2008 were about as realizable as the promises of the Wizard of OZ. At this point, the City of Evansville is soliciting a cast of developers to metaphorically bring them the broomstick of the Witch of the West. The broomstick of course is a fully financed Convention Hotel.

My second concern is just how solid the $1.5 million per year innkeeper’s tax is? The historical data includes years when the Executive Inn was in operation and conventions were more abundant. That cash cow from a tax perspective is currently out to pasture and not giving any milk. The danger of course is that if the $1.5 million becomes $1 million because of the loss of room nights and the economy stays depressed, someone has to pay for the shortage. The ECVB will not have the capacity to pay so who will backstop the debt service? All fingers pointed to David Dunn as the head of the ECVB at Wednesday’s meeting. It is easier to point fingers now that it will be to make up the shortage if the revenue from the innkeepers tax is even slightly disrupted.

The Value Proposition: A Derivative by any other name is still a Derivative

Mr. Dunn was asked if he had to invest the $18 Million himself, would it be a worthwhile investment. He responded enthusiastically “yes because it will yield $10 Million per year”. I think he must have misunderstood the question. Mr. Dunn, in his presentation projected that 100,000 visitors will come to the ball fields per year and spend $10 Million in Evansville businesses. That does not go into the coffers of government or into the ECVB; it is projected to go into the cash registers of local businesses. Government will “derive” income from this economic activity, thus the value to government or the ECVB is determined by derived income. That makes this a derivative play as far as the direct ROI is concerned.

If $10M is spent then $700,000 is collected in sales taxes and shipped off to Indianapolis. If $3Million of that is spent on lodging then an additional $240,000 is collected in innkeeper’s taxes. If Evansville businesses make profits of $1M (10%) on those sales then $34,000 of income tax is sent off to Indianapolis and $10,000 is collected by Vanderburgh County in County Option Income Tax (COIT).

Now, if all of this comes true as the PowerPoint states and 100,000 people really materialize (Owensboro draws about 40,000 per year to their parks), Evansville business benefits and the bond payments will be covered. The value while indirect may justify the investment but the direct “value” to the ECVB will not. The sustainability and maintenance of these ball fields will need to be derived from external sources like the innkeeper’s tax and facilities use fees.

What Next?

The Park as it is called is a wonderful project for an affluent town with a well endowed CVB that does not have to max out its credit card to make it happen. The citizens in opposition expressed discontentment with the fact that they perceive that this project and other local projects are just crammed down their throats. I must say I see why they feel that way from the tone of the meeting. I also have to wonder if Evansville can attract $10 Million in outside spending in a way that costs less than $18 Million to realize. I am interested if a real quote done at another site like the Goebel Soccer Complex would be less expensive or if a phased approach would defer some of the cost to a later date when some success has been proven.

The next step really should be to get a handle on the real cost. Much money has already been spent on engineering studies (hearsay is about $400,000) that are specific to this site. More will need to be done. Getting a handle on any further actions should be imperative before proceeding. Evansville cannot afford another Executive Inn style ready, fire, aim situation. The ECVB and the majority of the citizens of Evansville who spoke on Wednesday night are at an impasse. I am not sure what the real majority of the citizens of Evansville are thinking about this ball field project. I am not even sure which way the 3rd Ward City Council member Wendy Bredhold , the other members of the City Council, the Vanderburgh County Commissioners and County Council, or even Mayor Weinzapfel are leaning with respect to this project. I do not recall any published opinions from any of them.

What I am sure of is that projects like this need and deserve the support of the citizens to be successful and that the only way to really get a handle on that is through further discussions. Dr. Vince Bertram made the right decision last year by calling for a referendum prior to commencing the construction of the new North High School. It is clear that the majority of citizens support the new North High School. The Arena on the other hand is something that even though it is nearing completion it still does not enjoy verified majority support of the citizenry of Evansville. That mystery will never be resolved and there will always be those who argue both sides. A referendum would have put this question to rest.

As the decision to go forward with the ball fields will consume all of the funding that is available for brick and mortar tourism projects for the foreseeable future, establishing majority support of the citizens would not only be advisable but it would aid the success of the project. Of course there are those who will never be convinced and they are vocal. There are those like Dr. Bertram who are fully supportive. It would be best for us all if there was a clear quantifiable majority in support of this project before proceeding. After all, Evansville will be “all in” if the decision is made to proceed.

There were some discussions regarding favorable bonding opportunities that expire this year creating a sense of hurry to issue the bonds. In all reality, rushing to borrow money to meet a deadline for a project that is not completely thought out is not much different that taking advantage of a 0% credit card deal to do something that you will regret later. There is really no urgency to rush this and there is another year to enjoy Robert’s Stadium’s.

Is it really worth maxing out Evansville CVB’s credit card to do this project? Can’t we do this without breaking the ECVB’s bonding capacity to do so? With a little innovation, I say we can, and we can do it with majority public support.


  1. […] The Robert's Stadium Ball Field Questions | City-County Observer If Evansville proceeds with this, all of our eggs and all of our future eggs from a tourism attraction perspective will be in the youth baseball and softball basket. That financial reality came out during questioning when it was revealed that . The ECVB will not have the capacity to pay so who will backstop the debt service? All fingers pointed to David Dunn as the head of the ECVB at Wednesday's meeting. It is easier to point fingers now that it will be to make up the . […]

  2. “Much money has already been spent on engineering studies (hearsay is about $400,000) that are specific to this site.”

    Construction projects get studies to make their desired location look perfect. They don’t look for an available site that is suitable, without much investment. If the first study doesn’t do the job, they get new ones until the picture painted is what they want, or they only publish the positive parts. The public does not have the money to spend, or the inside knowledge of the project, to tear away the layers of omissions, misdirection and half-truths.

    The mayor wants Roberts Stadium to come down, regardless of cost. He ignores the voices of the public and the economic situation of this area.

    Roberts is the only venue that shows a profit every year, with no nearby hotel! It would be more if SMG did a better job of searching for shows to offer. We never hear the total number of tickets sold annually at Roberts, nor the number of users and attendees at the Goebel Soccer Fields. How much do we lose out there each year? The widening of Green River Rd. makes a ball complex more accessible if located at Goebel Complex. Better return on our road nvestment, too.

    If Owensboro draws only 40,000 to their baseball complex, including the Little League Play-Offs, why should we believe this project would become the “Mecca” of baseball and draw 100,000?

    Wrong assumptions, wrong project, wrong time, wrong place.

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