Article published in Northern Kentucky Tribune July 16, 2015:
By Terry Boehmker, NKyTribune sports reporter
Baseball parents earn a save by restoring Mountain Ballpark complex in Verona
More than 800 youth baseball games have been played at Mountain Ballpark over the last two years and plenty more are scheduled at the four-field complex on U.S. 42 in Verona before the end of this summer. Each time young players take the field for a league or tournament game there, Rob Harber and Jason Sickmeier are reassured that restoring the complex was a worthwhile venture.
“We didn’t know if it was going to be successful,” Harber said. “We took the risk and, even though it was a lot of money and a lot of volunteer labor that we organized with our friends and family, we got it renovated.”
Harber and Sickmeier are both youth baseball coaches who saw a need for more fields in the area and then did something about it. In 2013, they heard about the former Green Mountain Park softball complex in Verona that had been idle for 12 years. They checked it out and found that the backstops, fences and lights were still in place, but each of the fields was overgrown with weeds, vines, bushes and other vegetation.
They knew it would take a lot of money and time to make the fields playable once again, but they saw potential in the place. So they formed a partnership, negotiated a five-year lease with the owners of the property and rolled up thier sleeves to begin the restoration project.
The partners rented equipment to clear out the unwanted vegetation, level the infield areas and re-plant grass in the outfields. To accommodate teams in all age groups, they created fields with different dimensions, purchased portable pitcher’s mounds and installed adjustable outfield fences that make home runs possible. This spring, the partners received a grant from the Cincinnati Reds that enabled them to add a special dirt compound to each infield. The compound makes the surface smoother, safer and able to dry faster after a rain shower.
No games were played at the complex during the spring and summer of 2013, but they had everything ready for the 2014 season. Harber said 143 games were scheduled the year it re-opened as Mountain Ballpark. This year, they’ve already logged more than 700 games as a site for Northern Kentucky Baseball (NKB) and Southwest Ohio League (SWOL) games and tournaments.
“Mountain Ballpark was crucial to the NKB this year,” said Jason Ishmael, vice president of fields and scheduling for the local youth baseball organization. “Our league saw a significant increase in registrations and without the use of their park it would have been extremely difficult to schedule all of our league games and tournaments.”
None of the lights on the four fields are fully functional so all games have to be scheduled during the day. During the week, teams in the NKB and SWOL play league games there in the evening. On the weekends, leagues or individual teams reserve the complex for tournments. Last weekend, it was the site for the 8-under and 11-under age group state tournaments for teams registered with Cal Ripken Baseball.
“That’s where we make our revenue to keep this place running is through tournaments,” Harber said. “There’s been 11 tournaments here so far in 2015 and this is where we’re having a lot of success and showing our value. We’ve had teams from Cincinnati, Dayton, Louisville, Lexington and eastern Kentucky coming in and spending Friday, Saturday and Sunday with us, and they’re all spending money in hotels and restaurants while they’re here.”
With additional money from field sponsorships, admission fees and concession sales, Harber and Sickmeier were able to hire young people to manage the complex during games. They’re the ones who drag the infields, put chalk lines on the base paths, work the admission gate and run the concession stand.
“We hired three college graduates as our park managers and they held interviews on their own and hired high school kids to work as their staff,” Harber said. “So Jason and I provide the leadership, direction and strategy, but we don’t have to be here every night unless we want to.”
Both of the owners have full-time jobs and families. Sickmeier, 42, owns his own small business and Harber, 41, works for Fidelity Investments. Both of them also have a son playing for an SWOL select baseball team that uses Mountain Ballpark, so they have a personal reason to keep the complex going.
“We’re in our second year of operation and we’re making enough to pay the bills,” Harber said. “So we’re focused on keeping it growing in 2016 and there’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to.”
The partner’s plans for 2016 include installing batting cages and repairing the lights on each field so games can be played after sunset. An electrical company recently inspected the lights and Harber is waiting for an estimate on how much it will cost to have night baseball at the facility.
“We’ll have 700 to 800 games here this year and we could easily double that,” Harber said. “Right now, we can do four games every night and if we get the lights on it’ll be eight every night. So that’s the plan, to double the capacity next year.”