- Associated Press - Sunday, July 9, 2017

JASPER, Ind. (AP) - Driving around on his golf cart, Byron Jarboe can’t get the idea out of his head. Throughout the Jasper Youth Sports Complex, there’s individual clusters for Little League games, Babe Ruth games and girls softball games, all forming a community he said reminds him of the fictional town of Mayberry from the “Andy Griffith Show.”

He hears the gossip permeating through the stands among family members watching their sons or daughters play, and the thought of the alternative Mayberry keeps popping up.

“It’s great to see all those people out there watching their kids play,” Jarboe said. “That’s what I call it, the little town of Mayberry, you know how people get out there and watch and stuff. That’s what it is, the little town of Mayberry.”

If there’s a mayor, Jarboe is it. He’s the groundskeeper tasked with maintaining the 11-field complex, on top of umpiring T-ball games in the evenings. He’s been there since the start, when Jasper Parks Recreation Director Ken Buck’s idea of a new facility finally came to fruition in 2006. All told, the complex on the city’s southwest side cost $4 million to build - $3.2 million in bonds from the city and $800,000 of money from the Economic Development Income Tax.

The consensus was that the old fields needed to be upgraded, Buck said, leading to the decision to buy 80 acres of the Fidelis and Catherine Hopf farm to provide a better place for local baseball and softball leagues to play their games. Today, the facility is much more - it also hosts a variety of regional travel ball tournaments throughout the summer, which help boost the county’s tourism numbers to its spot among the best in the state. It also balances a full slate of Little League, Babe Ruth and youth softball games - about 450 boys and 325 girls - all of which Buck said remain the facility’s priority.

“We needed more facilities for our taxpayers,” Buck said. “We always have to take after our taxpayers first, and I know a lot of people don’t look at that but they’re the ones paying the bills for us. They get first dibs during the week, and then during the weekends we have the tournaments so it works out really good for everybody.”

When the complex opened in 2006, it put Jasper on the front end of a quickly developing trend of youth sports tourism and gave the area a leg up on the rest of the region.

“We were right at the start of the whole thing,” Buck said. “We built before Evansville and Westfield - Carmel might have had something.”

It started when the economy took a rough turn just before 2008. Most communities looked toward park and recreation departments, which Buck said became pseudo tourism departments. Now, where Jasper once held an edge, the field is much more crowded.

“It is getting more and more competitive, I can tell you that,” said Kevin Manley, executive director of the Dubois County Tourism Commission. “You’ve got Grand Park up in Westfield that’s putting on more and more tournaments. It is more competitive but we haven’t really felt that here.”

The reasons vary. Some of it comes down to Jasper’s complex establishing itself long before many other facilities were an option. The complex is also run better than some of the alternatives.

Cory Luebbehusen works as the treasurer for the Jasper Cardinals, a local travel baseball team referred to as JCards, and has seen his share of tournaments. The team was created about the same time as the complex opened, and JCards started hosting its own tournaments about nine years ago.

Luebbehusen noticed a few things that might put Jasper’s complex ahead of the alternatives.

“These other places that host tournaments are doing it to support their local Little League - hats off to them because they’re trying their best, but they just sometimes don’t have a lot of the little things we do,” Luebbehusen said. “We’ll drive around in golf carts, because the parking lots are pretty far apart, so we’ll drive the people back and forth to their cars.”

There’s also the general cleanliness. Luebbehusen has lost count on the amount of compliments he’s received on how clean the bathrooms are. That’s compared to other tournaments the JCards play in, which he says have one bathroom. After some parents take a step inside those, the immediate response is, “We’re not coming back to this place next year.”

A lot of that falls to Jarboe and his support staff of three part-time retirees and three more high school or college-aged kids he calls his summer interns.

Together, they’re in charge of maintaining the entire facility, and it’s their work that’s noticed when teams and organizations from out of town visit.

The weekend of June 17, Gameday USA hosted a tournament. Saturday went by without a hitch, but that night, and into Sunday morning, rain poured down putting the prospect of finishing the event in doubt.

The rain finally stopped by 7:30 Sunday morning, Jarboe said. The first games still started on schedule at 8 a.m.

“People were amazed we were going that early,” Jarboe said.

Mostly though, Jarboe said this summer has been like “hog’s heaven,” compared to a rain-soaked summer last year he likened to a bad date. All that was mild to the drought the region went through in 2012, when Jasper enforced water rations throughout the city.

“We kept things green on the fields, but outside of that it was just like a desert,” Jarboe said. “It was like playing in a desert. It was weird but we made it through it.”

When the complex hosted the district Little League tournament that year, there was an endless stream of people commenting to Jarboe how green the fields were. Up to that point, they had been playing on fields with no grass with dirt as hard as rock, Jarboe remembers hearing.

That’s what helps continue to draw both Little League and regional travel ball tournaments to Jasper. Gameday USA came to Jasper twice in June, helping to fill a docket that includes roughly a dozen weekend tournaments each summer.

The JCards host two tournaments a summer but play in a couple other regional events that routinely take place in Jasper. Even as more options continue sprouting up around southern Indiana, these types of tournaments return every summer.

On Gameday USA’s website, both of those events were advertised with Jasper’s proximity to Holiday World, which has become another factor drawing teams and events to the complex.

“The other thing with sports tourism, you can have a recession and it doesn’t really reflect sports tourism,” Manley said. “I think people want to support their kids as much as they can, and travel ball, that’s really their vacation. They’re spending their vacation dollars and they probably don’t take other vacations because they’re traveling and playing in ball tournaments every weekend.”

Luebbehusen said he’s heard from about 100 teams who compete in tournaments in Jasper because of the vacation opportunities. Many teams finish playing, stay an extra night and spend a day at Holiday World.

The challenge comes in keeping those teams in Jasper hotels, Manley said. Right now, there simply aren’t enough rooms. That’s a large reason behind the construction of two more hotels and why the Hampton Inn is undergoing a renovation to add on.

“With a baseball or a softball team, if you’re a team from out of town that’s going to stay, we’ve calculated that it pretty well averages 12 rooms a team,” Manley said. “We do not have enough. Teams are going to French Lick to stay, because if we only have six or eight rooms left and they need 10 or 12, they won’t stay there.”

When Manley first started working for the tourism department six years ago, he wanted to find out just how much money these tournaments brought into the community. For a 50-team tournament, there’s about $52,000 the complex itself earns directly. That comes from food bought at the concession stand run by the Little League to the $25 a game out-of-town teams pay to use the field, and the $15 a game local teams pay.

Then, Manley tried estimating how much money the tournament brought into the community as a whole. He ended up with an economic impact of $93,000 for one 50-team tournament.

But with the new complexes surrounding Jasper’s total numbers are starting to fade. Luebbehusen said when he first started competing in tournaments eight or nine years ago, there would be 70 teams for a typical weekend.

Now, that number is down to around 30 or 40.

“The one we had this year, we had the tournament here, there was one in Evansville, there was one in Elizabethtown, there was one in Paoli, there was one in Columbus, there was one in Greensburg - there was six or seven tournaments that were in a two-hour radius on the same weekend,” Luebbehusen said. “Everybody wants a piece of the pie so they’re hosting tournaments, too.”

Some of these facilities are nicer than Jasper’s, since they’re privately funded with more money. Evansville’s Deaconess Sports Park cost about $15.3 million and was paid for with innkeeper’s tax revenue. Elizabethtown, Kentucky, spent about $29 million, while Westfield poured about $53 million raised through public and private funds into its 26-field complex that also includes separate facilities for soccer, a fieldhouse, some artificial turf fields and an events center.

As the number of complexes increase, the number of teams competing in these tournaments is staying more or less the same. Still, Jasper is filling every weekend it wants to.

Even with the perceived challenges, and as some facilities either struggle to get built or draw tournaments once construction is complete, it’s what happens outside of the games that keeps teams and tournaments coming to Jasper every summer.

“You have a well-maintained complex with good umpires, good concessions, good facilities - it makes people want to come back,” Luebbehusen said. “You might go to another facility that doesn’t do some of those things, and you tend to go back to the places that take care of you and your families. If you’re from Indianapolis, you’re coming into our home and we want to take care of you.”

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Source: Dubois County herald, https://bit.ly/2tQZM5E

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Information from: The Herald, https://www.dcherald.com


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