by Jim Boyle
Members of the Elk River girls varsity softball team, their coach and a host of volunteer and elected community officials waited for darkness on April 8 to bring light to a new softball complex at Lion John Weicht Park in Elk River.
The new main field, a 100-person pavilion and modern restrooms are the latest Active Elk River project to reach completion. The volunteers behind the 2018 Active Elk River campaign to approve this and other projects that made up a $35 million referendum to be paid for with a half-cent local option sales tax gathered to celebrate the first lighting of the main field.
It was illuminating when they went on. These lights, unlike the new ones installed last year at the Youth Athletic Complex that take a while to reach their full illumination potential, come on full force in an instant.
They cut through the night sky, prompting a wave of audible appreciation from the crowd. Head varsity softball coach Danielle Bloom expressed her thankfulness to the group immediately after everyone could see each other again.
Bloom knows a little about Elk softball history. She played softball for Elk River High School from 2005-2008 before returning to help coach in 2013 when Elk River won its second state title in five years. She remembers the orange construction fencing that served as the outfield fence. To say they have come a long way would be a major understatement.
"This is amazing," the former Gopher softball player said of the lights, field and complex. "These girls are excited. We hope to make you proud this year, and we’re going to work our tails off." (Note: The team won its season opener on the new field on April 12 in walk-off fashion. See page 22.)
Elk River Mayor John Dietz was among the elected officials to share his thoughts on the new complex and what the premier field will mean to Elk River.
He said he has no doubt the field is one of the best in the metro.
"Hopefully, we’ll (host) a lot of playoff games here," he said.
Dietz said the fields will be busy in the spring with high school softball and all summer long with youth softball and baseball action.
"This is a great addition," Dietz said. "This brings two more quality fields ... and will attract big championship games."
Dietz noted the project is one of a series, with work on the next one starting soon in another part of town. He said the city is embarking on its Orono Park improvement project, and the park will soon be unrecognizable.
"By the end of the summer it will be a whole new deal with pickleball courts, a skate park, splash pad a lot of different amenities," he said.
Dietz said when all is said and done with Active Elk River, he thinks people will look back and see this effort as one of the greatest initiatives Elk River has ever completed to improve recreational facilities and spaces in the city, bringing a lot of first-class attractions to the city at a minimal cost with the sales tax. Voters in Elk River approved in 2018 a half-cent sales tax until the bonds are paid off.
Council Members Jennifer Wagner and Matt Westgaard also spoke at the field lighting.
"It’s so awesome to see everyone’s smiling faces and see everybody outside and being on this field for the first time," Wagner said before acknowledging the hard work and dedication of the volunteers that made the project possible and recognizing that the fields were built for the players to be able to use.
"Be proud, make us proud and make the whole community proud," Wagner said.
Westgaard told the softball team that he hopes they have a lot of great games and make a lot of great memories on the new field.
He said the success of Active Elk River speaks to the strength of the community and shows what can be accomplished when the community comes together.
Greg Loidolt, a retired youth baseball board member, called the field and complex awesome. He said he met a lot of people through the campaign, which included door-knocking, and that he was proud of the city and community.
He encouraged the softball program to bring some more state championships home and urged people in attendance and the community to fill the stands.
He concluded: "Keep voting for the youth. That what this city is about — people coming here, wanting to be here and raise their families."
Brian Balabon, who has coached softball and hockey, said he has had a chance to see the Furniture and Things Community Event Center being used for hockey and its new field house in the former Olympic rink used for tryouts by Elk River and Rogers programs.
"This is absolutely amazing to see where we are now compared to three years ago," he said. "It’s absolutely fantastic.
"There are many great years ahead for Elk River."
Dave Williams, who chaired the volunteer Active Elk River committee, thanked members of the committee. He said he had the easy job of coordinating people and his volunteers did the heavy lifting.
"This wouldn’t have gotten done without the committee," he said.
He also thanked the mayor and council members for all their support.
Williams got the honors of turning on the lights last year at YAC and last Thursday at Lion John Weicht Park.