Planners dream big for TeWinkle Sports Complex

COSTA MESA — Imagine a mini Wrigley Field or Yankee Stadium across the street from the Orange County Fairgrounds at TeWinkle Park.

Perhaps an indoor soccer field. Or larger baseball diamonds that become a hub for local and national tournaments — and increase tourism to boot.

Maybe there's an entrance fee to go the park, and maybe not. It all depends on what the city decides.

Nothing is off the table this early in the process, but as three private companies' presentations at the city's Parks and Recreation Commission meeting Wednesday show, big things could be in store for the TeWinkle Park Sports Complex.

About five years since the sports complex re-opened with $3.4 million in upgrades, Mayor Gary Monahan is pushing for more development and a possible public-private partnership.

First up was Major League Softball Inc., which claimed it would draw in youth and adult sports from around the county and split the profits from fees and licenses with the city. The league's president, Dave Johnson, said his company would renovate and enlarge the fields and close off access to the park, save for an entrance off Arlington Drive.

He envisioned the parks as a year-round destination for local families and traveling sports teams, with maintenance and amenities — including beer and wine sales — as key.

"You can put up all the pretty pictures you want, but you keep that turf plush, you have reasonable fees, and you'll have that park full," Johnson said. "Am I going to build you those nice food courts and spend a lot of money without beer and wine? No."

The company would still be open to operating the park, though, and Johnson promised not to "nickel and dime" residents by charging them to get in.

Johnson's comment might have been a shot at Sportsplex USA, which offered to lease the park, charge an entrance fee for adults and pay the city monthly dues.

Big League Dreams Sports Park founder Richard Odekirk pointed out his company has been featured in Sports Illustrated and on national news shows, and has the backing of former Major League Baseball players.

His company creates mini-versions of MLB parks, so the potential for TeWinkle Park is big, but he reassured the commission he could adjust his plans to the city's liking.

"We're prepared to do exactly what you want us to do," he said.

Residents at the meeting, especially those living near the park, expressed reservations. Some said the sports complex is already over-used. They also questioned why, just five years after $3.4 million in city-funded renovations, Costa Mesa was looking for more development.

Monahan requested the inquiry. Upgrading the park has been a passion of his since the mid-1990s, when he was elected to the council on that platform.

In the end, commissioners complimented the ideas but declined to single out one of the companies for more negotiations. Instead, the group recommended the city create a task force to study possible upgrades to the park's sports complex, with residents, park users and city officials all having a voice.

The framework for the task force is scheduled to be approved at the commission's Sept. 20 meeting.

With a court order barring the city indefinitely from outsourcing any city jobs to private companies — which any public-private partnership for the park would likely entail — it's unclear how far any plans could go. The injunction is expected to remain in effect until a lawsuit against the city by one of its employee groups is resolved.

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