There’s something happening in Sylvan Lake these days that is quite remarkable.
Here in the heart of central Alberta, a family of successful cattle ranchers is investing a good portion of its life savings into building a baseball stadium in a field on the outskirts of town.
A stadium they will never own.
In some ways, the scenario playing out in Sylvan Lake is similar to the epic 1989 Field of Dreams baseball movie starring Kevin Costner, who plays an Iowa corn farmer who builds a ball diamond in his corn fields. Except for one major difference. Graham and Jen Schetzsle, of Veteran, Alta., are realizing their dream in the middle of a nightmare scenario that has the Alberta economy flattened by a double whammy of the COVID-19 pandemic and collapsing oil prices. If they are able to pull this off, however, it could very well offer a blueprint for how a successful private-public partnership can help local economies create jobs and get people back to work in Alberta and across the country.
The Schetzsles recently purchased a franchise in the Western Canadian Baseball League, a well-established collegiate summer league featuring 12 teams from Alberta and Saskatchewan that play a 56-game schedule from May to early August. Their original plan was to co-invest alongside the Town of Sylvan Lake for approximately 50 per cent of the $7-million financing required for the stadium. The town would own the stadium in return for granting a 25-year lease to the baseball team. The balance of the funding would come from private investors.
The Schetzsles publicly kicked off the stadium announcement on March 15 in Sylvan Lake to a strong and enthusiastic reception from local fans and businesses, as well as municipal and provincial elected officials. The team name, the Sylvan Lake Gulls, was unveiled while the franchise’s GM and president of baseball operations, Aqil Samuel, outlined plans to field a team for the summer of 2021. A few days later, COVID-19 effectively shut down the province. Business stopped dead in its tracks. Investment capital froze. Any potential private-sector interest in helping fund the balance of this $7-million project was shelved.
Undaunted, the Schetzsles have decided to push forward. They continue to seek private-sector support and are now also applying for provincial and federal government infrastructure funding for the stadium. They have set a deadline of June 1 to raise the balance in funding from private investors or the public sector before they make a decision to shelve or simply cancel their Sylvan Lake “field of dreams.” “We’re strong baseball fans and no matter how tough things are now, we are absolutely convinced that over the long term, this project could be an amazingly successful one,” said Schetzsle, a former NCAA Division 1 ball player.
“My wife Jen and I believe that if we’re successful in getting this stadium built, people will come from Sylvan Lake and all of central Alberta. The stadium will be the crown jewel in the whole Pogadl Park development.” The municipality of Sylvan Lake is developing the 85-acre Pogadl Park recreational complex on the outskirts of town, which, along with the proposed baseball stadium, will house a slo-pitch and minor ball complex, campground spaces, soccer fields, a multi-purpose synthetic sports field, a spray park, playgrounds, outdoor hockey rink/surface, pickleball/tennis courts, volleyball courts, walking paths and bike trails, as well as washroom and other amenities.
The risk of losing the baseball stadium has significant consequences for the park and the entire community. Construction of the stadium, which was originally slated to begin in mid-June, would create 125 construction jobs for the next 10 months. Once the stadium was completed, the Gulls’ would create another 25 full-time jobs in sales, administration and operations. Total economic spinoff is estimated at $7.85 million over the next 12-month period.