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An Elkhart businessman bets $12 million that baseball will be a hit here

For now, corn stubble poking through the snow is the main feature off the northeast corner of C.R. 17 and U.S. 20. Come 2011, expect more, a lot more -- a new $12 million stadium, baseball and maybe even a few new retail outlets and restaurants. "Pretty awesome to think what it'll look like in 15 months," Craig Wallin, the developer of the plans, said Monday, eyeing the vacant plot.
Posted on Feb. 23, 2010 at 12:00 a.m. | Updated on Feb. 23, 2010 at 2:08 p.m.

ELKHART -- For now, corn stubble poking through the snow is the main feature off the northeast corner of C.R. 17 and U.S. 20.

Come 2011, expect more, a lot more -- a new $12 million stadium, baseball and maybe even a few new retail outlets and restaurants.

"Pretty awesome to think what it'll look like in 15 months," Craig Wallin, the developer of the plans, said Monday, eyeing the vacant plot. "The site really is perfect."

Wallin, president of Elkhart-based media company CTT Communications, revealed plans Monday to develop the stadium and bring an amateur, collegiate-level baseball team to Elkhart County. Yes, investors need to be pinned down and plenty of work remains. But this is no mere glint in his eye.

Wallin has been working quietly behind the scenes since the middle of last year and dirt is slated to be moved at the 18-acre C.R. 17-U.S. 20 plot starting in April. Stadium construction should start in May and the new Northwoods League team is to hit the field in June 2011, with tickets costing $3 to $8 a pop.

"It's a go," said Wallin, who calls baseball his favorite sport. "If you have a nice facility and you're playing baseball, it just seems to be the perfect combination."

Baseball isn't the only element of the proposal, however. Some 35,000 square feet of office, retail and restaurant space will be built in conjunction with the stadium plans, abutting the complex and accessible year-round. It may not be done by June 2011, but it should be ready by the end of that summer.

Moreover, the new 2,500-seat stadium, as Wallin envisions it, will be used for much more than just the yet-to-be named Northwoods League squad. High school and college teams may play their games there and he also sees it being used for concerts and other community events.

Diana Lawson, executive director of the Elkhart County Convention and Visitors Bureau, called the plans a boost to the quality of life here. They also bolster the sports profile of the zone around C.R. 17 where the stadium is to be built, home to the Elkhart Sports Center athletic complex and the Signature Lanes bowling alley.

"It seems like that particular corridor is almost developing into a sports gateway for the community," Lawson said. "Maybe we can call it our sports corridor."

Elkhart County Commissioner Mike Yoder alluded to the many development proposals that have emerged in the county of late. They include a "holiday village" that would cater to tourists seeking short vacation getaways, a new electric car manufacturer and a company that makes equipment capable of turning garbage into energy.

"We've had such a wide variety of economic development opportunities," said Yoder. "It's been exciting for the county."

THE FUNDING QUESTION

Excitement aside, there's still the question of financing. Even in the uneven economy, though, Wallin seems confident.

County commissioners on Monday allocated $5 million in bonding authority to CTT for the stadium plans under a federal stimulus program and Wallin thinks he'll be able to find investors.

Under the federal program, meant so spur economic development, the feds cover 45 percent of interest costs on eligible bonding while the county assumes no risk or liability. The assistance on the interest makes it cheaper to borrow, though program participants still have to find investors to purchase the bonds in the first place.

"We're well on our way," said Wallin, alluding to efforts to find bond buyers. "We've been working on that already."

Aside from bonding, additional funding is expected to come through a combination of naming rights, advertising and debt financing. Wallin also plans to look into grant funding available by using environmentally friendly materials, such as pervious concrete, and recycled products. The sale and lease of the planned office, restaurant and retail space at the stadium, meanwhile, is also expected to help.

"It's prime for development," he said.

He hopes for four restaurants, which would be accessible to stadium-goers, and, perhaps, clothing stores, a salon, a sporting goods store, other shops and offices. Also to be in the stadium complex is a 10,000- to 12,000-square foot baseball training facility with batting cages and other amenities.

The new stadium would be within Pinecreek at 17, the expanse on the northeast quadrant of C.R. 17 and U.S. 20 that Elkhart-based Gateway Buildings and Properties is developing. The Verdant Drive entrance to the parcel has been paved and numerous ornate green lamp posts have already sprouted along the roadway.

Just to the south of the planned stadium, a medical office building is to be built. New offices, restaurants and strip malls have sprouted farther north in recent years along the busy C.R. 17 corridor.


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