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? 

Throughout the early rush, Lansing and the Ameskamps kept their increasingly famous field clear of commercial clutter and free to visit, attributes that became central to its allure. “If this field were in suburban Chicago,” says Marv Maiers, a Dyersville native and veteran Ghost Player, “you’d be paying $10 just to drive down the driveway … They’d be trying to suck the money out of you. And you don’t have to spend a nickel if you don’t want to. You can just come enjoy the show, enjoy the scenery, and enjoy the tranquility.”

But success strained the Lansing-Ameskamp relationship. At times, at home and in court, the families fought bitterly over their vision for the space. The Ameskamps, having leased their property and entered into a profit-sharing agreement with a small group of investors called Left and Center Field of Dreams, wanted to hold more events and build a maze in their cornfield, changes they thought were subtle enough to preserve the site’s rustic reputation. Don Lansing and his wife, Becky, a Colorado transplant he met—naturally—during her 1995 trip to the ball field, feared the overcommercialization and the kitsch that might accompany an expansion of any size. Each side had erected its own entrance sign and gift shop, a redundant yet sensible compromise. In a move that perfectly encapsulated the owners’ mutual scorn, though, the Lansings reportedly posted a placard near their house: The souvenir stand at third base is operated by an out of state investment banking firm and is not associated with the Lansing farm or family. “Everything we want to do, they say no,” Rita Ameskamp lamented in one 1999 newspaper interview. “Sometimes it brings tears to your eyes.”

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.”

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Adam Doster is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

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