BY DEAN HOCKNEY
KOKOMO, Ind. – The City of Firsts has a gem of a multi-purpose athletic stadium in downtown Kokomo, but 21 months after the first announcement that Municipal Stadium would be built in a flood plain along the Wildcat Creek, it is still not finished. A quick glance at the facility reveals one of two main concession stands, locker rooms, batting cages, office space, a concourse and a gift shop are still under construction.
When Mayor Greg Goodnight announced the city’s intentions to build a stadium on May 12, 2014, it was met with a lot of praise from the sports community. The $11.5 million project included $2.5 million for flood mitigation and $9 million for stadium construction. The City of Kokomo also announced it would pay off the $6 million parking garage five years early.
“Little did we know that the need for comprehensive flood mitigation and the need to re-establish a first class baseball facility would eventually merge into one of the largest, new developments in downtown’s history,” Goodnight said in the original press release. “Kokomo is paying off a $6 million debt for the new parking garage five years early, repurposing a flood prone area, building a baseball stadium that will be enjoyed by generations, and beginning to alleviate flooding concerns in central Kokomo.”
The city promised baseball would be played less than one year after the announcement – the following spring – but the Kokomo Wildkats never recorded a single out on the synthetic turf field.
“Stadium construction is expected to begin soon and open in April 2015 in time for next year’s high school baseball season,” the city stated in May 2014. “Four Howard County high schools have committed to playing baseball in the new stadium.”
By the time construction started, the Indiana Department of Homeland Security – representing the Federal Emergency Management Agency – declared the city could not build on several proposed plots of land due to Hazard Mitigation Grants being awarded for the area. But the city continued construction around those plots while fighting FEMA in the courts and Senator Jim Buck in the State Senate after he proposed Senate Bill 100, which would have essentially halted construction. Eventually, the city and FEMA mended fences and the federal government allowed the turf to be rolled in time for the Jackrabbits season to start.
Unfortunately, during the political fight, construction was slowed on several areas which resulted in the stadium being plagued with long lines at the concession stands and a look of a work in progress. Despite the construction, good news hit in late-June when Ballpark Digest named Kokomo Municipal Stadium the Best Summer Collegiate Ball Park in America. And fans poured in as the Jackrabbits were third in the Prospect League with 44,181 tickets sold.
But by the end of the inaugural Jackrabbits season, construction was still not finished and the biggest complaint from fans was the up-to three innings wait in the concession stand line – which was a city construction issue and not a Jackrabbits logistical downfall.
After the baseball season, the stadium was opened to soccer, and the IHSAA played a girls Class A sectional in the new venue while construction continued. By the time the city and Jackrabbits ownership – MKE Sports & Entertainment – announced the formation of the Kokomo Mantis FC soccer team, many wondered if the stadium would be done by the following spring. At the announcement of the soccer team in September 2015, Goodnight said KMS would be done by the next baseball season.
“We will be done,” exclaimed Goodnight. “We are ready to put the turf into the bullpens. We will get it ready in time. We are now battling getting contractors to come back for a six or eight hour job. New structures are now completed or being worked on since the end of the Jackrabbits season.”
As construction continued, teams clamored to play on the synthetic turf. Purdue University (March 18-20) and the University of Evansville (March 22) both scheduled regular season NCAA Division I baseball games for the spring. The American Legion announced it would bring the Indiana state baseball finals back to Kokomo for the first time since 1996 (July 22-26). It is anticipated the IHSAA Kokomo Semi-State will also be played at KMS (June 11). And the biggest feather thus far was the Prospect League saying it would host its annual All-Star Game and festivities at the new ball park this summer (July 12-13).
But the fact remains the stadium is not done, and with Purdue scheduled to play in a little more than one month, it appears construction at the stadium will not be finished in time for baseball as promised on many occasions. The Sports Journal requested a sit-down interview with city administrators, but they would not meet the requested deadline.
“We are planning for, and fully anticipate, that Municipal Stadium will be substantially complete for Opening Day,” said City Engineer Cary Stranahan in an emailed statement.
With a little over a month until the first scheduled pitch by a Boilermaker pitcher, which is “opening day” at the stadium, it would appear the city has a long way to go until the award-winning Kokomo Municipal Stadium is “substantially complete.” But then again, substantially can be in the eye of the beholder.
(Editor’s note: After this story was published, it was announced that Kokomo Municipal Stadium would host a regular season baseball game between Manchester University and John Carroll University on March 12, thus moving up the ball park’s 2016 home opener by six days.)
Dean Hockney is the publisher of the Sports Journal and the public address announcer of the Kokomo Jackrabbits