By Michael Howell
The County Commissioners have met twice and plan to meet again, possibly on Wednesday, January 9, in ongoing discussions aimed at leasing part of a storage shed at the Jerry Stevens Memorial Park on Kurtz Lane to the Montana Sports Academy, LLC. The company, founded two years ago by Mike Hamlin and Jason Goligoski, provides high tech batting and pitching instruction involving the use of batting cages, pitching nets, film equipment and a computer software program that is used in analyzing the batter’s swing or the pitcher’s throwing motion.
The two men have been operating their business with a single batting cage located in a garage and over the course of the last two years have coached over 60 players from nine years of age up to 22 years of age. Each player is filmed to break down and correct swing or pitching mechanics. The men instruct both baseball and softball players and high school players can have a CD made showing their hitting ability and have it sent to college coaches for review. A film log is kept on each player to show improvement over time.
By moving into more spacious quarters in an unused part of a storage shed at the Jerry Stevens Memorial Park, the two men hope to increase their services more than twofold by adding a second batting cage and offering training to kids from all over the county at a minimum cost. The $5 fee would be used to cover the basic expenses of utilities, insurance and the cost of maintaining a portable toilet, among other things. No wages would be paid to the coaches according to the proposed agreement. No more than six players would be at the facility at the same time. The season would run from December to June with expenses estimated at $1,980.
The proposal came before the commissioners with full recommendation for approval by the County Park Board, but the Commissioners balked over questions of legality. Commissioner Greg Chilcott questioned whether the program would be offered equitably to kids across the county. He cautioned that a program available by appointment only for a limited number of kids could appear to be a Bronc training facility, since one of the coaches is a Hamilton High School coach. He said the commissioners had a fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers to be sure that it was available to anyone without discrimination. He noted that while they had verbal assurances, they had nothing in writing. Chilcott also noted that because the lease was for zero dollars, someone might question whether it was a sort of “sweetheart” deal. He wondered if the county should advertise the space as open for use and see if there are alternatives that would produce more public benefit.
“What if someone out there is willing to pay for the space?” he wondered.
Park Board Chairman Gary Leese said that this proposal was brought forward by the individuals involved and no one else had come forward with any proposal. He said it would be a great benefit to the public by providing young kids with a valuable opportunity for improving their skills at a very popular sport. He said the Park Board saw it now as wasted space and it is one hundred percent behind the proposed use. He said the use fit the park’s dedicated purposes quite well.
Commissioner J.R. Iman, who serves as a commissioner representative on the Park Board, suggested that the men come back with a plan of operation in writing that would be attached to the lease. The plan would be designed to address the questions about non-discrimination.
At the next meeting, however, the plan, as presented, ran into continued resistance from Commissioner Chilcott. He called himself “the fly in the ointment” and raised again the question of the program’s openness to all kids in the valley. He was adamant that the program must not be “discriminatory” and he was still not sure that the program could survive challenge on those grounds if some parent became disgruntled at not getting their child scheduled. He questioned, once again, moving forward with a deal for zero money, if in fact there were people out there willing to pay for the space but who had not been given the chance.
Deputy County Attorney Howard Recht was asked how the Board might move forward. Recht suggested that the first thing to do, if the county was interested in using parklands and facilities in this fashion, would be to direct the Park Board to come up with a policy for how the county’s park lands and facilities would be used. He said that without a policy and without any precedent, the county could consider leasing the building space on a trial basis and see what issues are actually encountered.
Park Board members expressed frustration at the commissioners balking once again at approval of the deal. They emphasized that the building has been sitting vacant and unused for years and that the proposed use was in conformity with the Park Board’s Master Plan which was to use the park for ball fields. The commissioners were criticized for getting bogged down in a bunch of “what ifs” but offering no solutions.
The commissioners indicated that if the details discussed about the method of operation could be put into writing, possibly with some set times and some way to publicize the program, that they could approve it on a six-month trial basis. A meeting was scheduled for Wednesday, January 9, to address the matter again, although the Commissioners’ Administrator warned in an e-mail notice that there have been indications that some issues may take more time than anticipated and the meeting may have to be delayed. She advised anyone interested in attending to call in advance to see if it was on schedule.