Fighting Over the Field of Dreams

A quarter century ago, in rural Iowa, a Hollywood crew built a temporary baseball diamond for a now-classic movie. Maintained as a tourist attraction since, the field has recently been sold, and a developer’s new plans for it are dividing some of the community’s landowners. Which raises a curious question: Should the field's fake authenticity be preserved? 

For most of Dyersville’s other residents, the interfamily feud remained little more than town gossip, and an occasional Japanese tour bus was a small price to pay for the financial and civic jolt the Field of Dreams provided. A sightseeing infrastructure emerged: new restaurants, new shops, a new hotel, all in a town of only about 4,000 people. Baseball and especially the Chicago Cubs have always been popular in this part of the Midwest, but the field established what City Administrator Mick Michel calls “the Dyersville brand.” To paraphrase the film’s signature line, when Universal built that diamond, fans most definitely came.

The field worked its magic for years. As time passed, however, interest began to wane. The movie seemed to fall out of networks’ prime-time rotations; the Ghost Players aged and hung up their cleats; enrollment in Dyersville’s Little League remained steady, but some parents noticed their kids growing more interested in soccer. “People wondered if it was about to run its course,” recalls Mary Ungs‑Sogaard. In the 2000s, Al Ameskamp passed away, and Rita sold her portion of the property to the Lansings, who, in 2010, ready to pass the field along, put all 193 acres on the market.

Rumors soon rippled through Dyersville’s coffee klatches about who might buy the site. Would a corporate group snatch it up? What about Kevin Costner himself? What would become of the place? The answer came in October 2011, when two suburban Chicagoans, Denise Stillman and her husband, Mike, announced their purchase of the field and the adjoining farm.

Denise Stillman had ambitious plans. In the land to the north and west of the movie site (which she promised would remain cost-free and undefiled), she proposed building what she called All-Star Ballpark Heaven: a giant, 24-field baseball-and-softball complex, loosely modeled after Cooperstown Dreams Park, a tournament camp near the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, in New York. When fully operational, she claimed, the facility—a kind of Cooperstown West—would be able to host 152 teams for 13 consecutive summer weeks.

During the second event, Kelsey Grammer and Meat Loaf teamed up against Reggie Jackson, Bob Gibson, and Fergie Jenkins.

This was not some fly-by-night scheme. Stillman, a marketing and planning consultant with an M.B.A. from Northwestern, had compiled research about the youth-sports market, contacted coaches to determine whether a Field of Dreams tournament would hold cachet, and bounced the idea off business leaders in Dyersville to see whether they thought it was feasible. “The former owners had zero basis and no mortgage, nothing else to pay,” she says. “They could afford to keep it as it was. Based on the mortgage, you need to build something bigger—you can’t just sell T‑shirts. So what’s the smallest project we could build and still make the numbers work?”

Over the next year, the Dyersville City Council annexed land, made a few zoning changes to accommodate the proposal, and approved a development agreement to minimize the risk to taxpayers. Stillman, working full-time on the project, organized a team of construction managers, engineers, and lawyers to execute her vision. To help fund it, she created a limited-liability company called Go the Distance Baseball, which attracted the attention of the Hall of Fame third baseman Wade Boggs and the Friends star Matthew Perry, among others, who signed on as partners. Go the Distance Baseball finally closed on the property in December 2012, for a reported $3.4 million, and Stillman signaled her intention to begin running tournaments in 2014.

To Dyersville’s mayor, Jim Heavens, who had for years worried about the fading value of the town’s principal asset, it seemed like a dream come true. “Here we had a nice couple that came to Dyersville and said they want to invest $70 million in our town,” he told me. “I can remember walking out of our first meeting thinking, Wow, I hit the jackpot here.”

What the supporters of All-Star Ballpark Heaven thought would be a natural sell has, to their confusion and frustration, turned out to be anything but. In early community meetings, a contingent of local landowners raised loud concerns. They worried that the development would dramatically increase traffic on area roads, making it dangerous for children to play outside; that the light generated at the two dozen fields would be a nuisance for nearby homeowners; that runoff from the site would cause Hewitt Creek to overflow, flooding neighbors’ land. They had aesthetic worries, too. “If you change the site physically,” says Matt Mescher, the neighbor who once watered the outfield to keep the sod alive, “without that blue sky and cornfield backdrop, you’re going to be cutting your foot off.” At a lengthy and clamorous February 2012 city-council meeting, Rita and Al Ameskamp’s son Wayne made an impassioned plea for the town to halt the project. “Don’t let them build these baseball diamonds out in the country and take our farm ground out of production and ruin our piece of heaven,” he said. Lawsuits and social-media campaigns ensued. Without irony, a columnist for The Des Moines Register expressed concern that the development would facilitate the area’s “Disneyfication.”

Then came an election, this past November, in which proponents of the development were roundly defeated. All three of the city-council members up for reelection were thrown out of office—as was Mayor Heavens, a five-time incumbent who had served in the position since 2003. The Field of Dreams expansion, Heavens says, was “the issue of the election.” His successor, Alvin Haas, the co-owner of a local construction and environmental-consulting firm, won’t go quite that far, but he doesn’t discount its significance. In a town uniquely defined by its ersatz baseball park, how could he? “We didn’t campaign on it,” he says, “but you know, in the back of their heads, people were thinking about it.”

Denise Stillman admits that the controversy has hampered fund-raising and planning efforts. She’s moving ahead anyway. The land belongs to her and her husband, after all: the city gave them license to build on it, and they’re convinced the idea is still sound. Six fields will open for competition in 2015, she promises, with more to follow as soon as possible.

Already, Stillman has made a number of incremental improvements to the field—rehabbing the big barn, upgrading the playing surface—and just about everyone in Dyersville would agree that these changes were necessary. She has screened movies and hosted Little League games, too, and has plans this June for a blowout weekend celebration to mark the 25th anniversary of the release of Field of Dreams. For select occasions, Denise has even convinced the Ghost Players to come back out of retirement—and the Iowa corn.

This winter, not long after the controversial election, I drove out to see the Field of Dreams for myself. I started at the south end of Dyersville, near the old Ertl plant, a long, yellow factory where hundreds of residents manufactured farm toys for decades before the company moved its production facilities in the 1990s, first to Mexico and then to China. (The plant is now home to a Japanese toy distributor.) It seemed a fitting launch point: the decals that employees slapped on tiny tractors once gave Dyersville national recognition. I headed north on Highway 136 into the older part of town, passing two-story brick houses with expansive porches and tidy lawns. At the western end of the main drag, I spotted the Basilica of Saint Francis Xavier, one of the only rural basilicas in the country. It’s a breathtaking Gothic church, 126 years old and more than 200 feet tall, with intricate ornamentation. Nobody would mistake Dyersville for a metropolis, but it’s not some sleepy backwater, either. There is activity, economic and communal, and there is history.

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