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Business and the Economy
Business and economy news and issues in the Ozarks.

Hitting a Home Run Over Fenway’s Green Monster; at Age 10

Youth sports can generate memories that last a lifetime. To enhance that experience, several new baseball diamonds are under construction in southwest Missouri in what officials also hope serves as a boon to the local tourism industry. KSMU's Scott Harvey reports.

Two on. Two out. Bottom of the ninth. With the crowd standing anxiously, you dig in at home plate and wait for the pitcher to come set. The scoreboard in right center field shows a tie game. Behind it is the iconic monument symbolizing the westward expansion of the United States; the Gateway Arch.

Credit Scott Harvey / KSMU
Looking down the first base path of the future two-thirds scale Busch Stadium.

“We are walking out onto the first base line. Literally on the upper deck of a first base line. So this will be taken out, home plate will be here. Seating from a restaurant there, overlooking home plate. Center field out that way…”

This is Busch Stadium. In Branson, Missouri. My tour guide is Hamilton Chang, the CEO of Ballparks of America, who is working to renovate a former outlet mall into the “Epcot Center” of baseball. This destination will welcome 10-12 year-olds on little league baseball clubs from around the world, where they can play in historic venues like Wrigley Field and Fenway Park, albeit in two-thirds scale models.

“Busch Stadium is meant to be the crown jewel. This stadium is currently planned to seat 2,500 to 3,000 people. This is where our opening ceremonies will be. This is where the premiere game of the day will be,” Chang says.

His vision is to renovate what was formerly the Factory Merchants Mall just off of the Branson strip into six ball fields, with the option of future expansion on this roughly 65-acre lot. The first phase, estimated to cost $15 million, received approval from the Branson Planning and Zoning Commission and Board of Aldermen earlier this year.

Credit Scott Harvey / KSMU
Chang describing the layout of the park through a rendering.

“We found this location as Branson to be pretty much ideal for us. But we really felt as though this property and the buildings that exist here sealed the deal for us.”

That’s because Chang’s team is repurposing the existing mall structures to serve as stadium bleachers, restaurants and shop space, as well as dormitories for little league clubs. It’s projected to save his company millions of dollars and construction time.

“Look it, the infrastructure – ADA compliant. Fire suppression. Stereo system. Literally the sound system throughout this entire mall… the construction itself actually looks like a stadium.” Chang -

Garrett Anderson is Branson’s economic development director.

“We had been, in conjunction with the [Branson] Chamber of Commerce, looking at a lot of different sports venues around the country and studying the success of sports in Branson already.”

With its RecPlex operating at peak efficiency, the city needed a new option for youth sports. In 2011, Simon Property Group, who was then leasing the Factory Merchants Mall, asked to break its lease and consolidate certain operations elsewhere in town. In return, it offered to donate the existing buildings to the city.

“The first things we wanted to see was is this something that we could afford with our current budget. And basically, the answer is no. We don’t have a lot of extra money at the city right now to develop and operate these on our own. So really we’re definitely looking for a partner that wants to come in and invest in the community and be able to operate this as a private venture,” said Anderson.

Enter Ballparks of America. Proposals from elsewhere included tearing down the existing infrastructure and starting from scratch, but refurbishing the buildings was a key selling point for the city. Local business owner John Moore helped introduce the site to the Chicago-based company, which Chang calls the “ideal location.”

“It is so incredibly family friendly. It’s affordable. It’s accessible for many, many different baseball playing areas. We’re a minivan drive for one-third the U.S. population. And that works out for us, because for most of these baseball tournaments, we are literally talking about a one-day drive to get there,” Chang said.

As of November, Ballparks of America had received nine letters of intent from businesses, that will be stationed at the site’s Ballpark Village. Aside from the fields themselves, this collection of shops and activities is so far poised to include a family grill, 50s diner, arcade, and a bat-turning facility operated by New York-based Cooperstown Bat Company.

Chang’s team has been busy contacting coaches and league and tournament organizers, both nationally and internationally, to educate them on the new space.   

Chang adds, “This building right here has just under 40,000 square feet. And that will be able to house about 35 teams.”

And Anderson points to another recently commissioned study that shows a new sports venue would be beneficial to Branson’s tourism industry.

“The impression was that the sports visitor was just coming in to do their event and then leaving, and not spending money the same way that a regular tourist does," Anderson said. "And this study showed the opposite, that a sports visitor actually tended to spend a bit more, and they actually tended to come back more often.”

Credit Scott Harvey / KSMU
Ahead will be the future site of the replica Wrigley Field and baseball club dormitories.

In addition to Busch, Wrigley and Fenway, Chang and his partners Doc Snyder and Craig Hutson have designated phase one to also include Detroit’s Tiger Stadium, Pittsburg’s Forbes Field and Washington’s Griffith Stadium.

Reporter: That had to be a tough thing to narrow down?

Chang: “Late night conversations and arguments with respect to how iconic was iconic… So it was a push and shove; what’s most iconic.”

“It’s going to be a big difference between hitting a home run just on a regular ball field or hitting a home run at Wrigley Field, or at Busch Stadium, or at Fenway Park over the green monster in left field. That image for the kid is going to be such a great memory and we want that memory to be here in Branson,” Anderson said.

Lease terms stipulate that approximately five percent of revenues generated on the site will go to the city. It estimates that the six-park venue will attract roughly 500 families a week.

Opening Day at Ballparks of America is planned for the first week of June.