FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) — The league has used the diamonds behind on the Saint Joe Township building for around 70 years now but said that could change if they can’t come to an agreement on a land contract.
The league, which sees about 350 players in a normal season, has played on the fields since its inception sometime in the 1950s.
“Through the years it’s evolved from, I believe at one time, there was just one then as the league grew they expanded,” said Wayne Horn, a former coach and former board member of the league.
The program, which is officially licensed under Little League Baseball & Softball, expanded to four baseball diamonds with several bleachers, buildings, and light and fencing fixtures. Horn said much of it was paid over the decades for by sponsors and fundraising, and even by volunteers like himself putting up the money. During his time, Horn gave what he called a conservative estimate of $1,000 to $1,500 to the program with others doing the same.
The league does not and has never had ownership of the land. St. Joseph Township, and essentially the taxpayers in the township, owns the property according to attorney Peter Mallers of Beers Mallers Backs & Salin, who is representing the township. The league and township have historically used a one-page contract outlining liability concerns and property rules. It has allowed the league to use the land rent-free while also being able to make upgrades as long as they are first approved by the township trustee, currently Sarah Gnagy.
St. Joe Little League President Joel Beghtel said for the last three years, the length of time he has been president of the league, he has not been given a contract to sign. That changed around the start of their 2020 season in April when he said Gnagy sent a four-page contract that outlined COVID-19 guidelines the league had to follow as well as require the league to get trustee approval when it comes to which contractors are hired to make upgrades around the baseball fields.
Beghtel said he was surprised last Friday, September 4, when he received a letter from Gnagy that said the league had one week to sign the contract or they would have to remove their property from the facilities by noon on Saturday, September 12. He had hoped to focus on negotiated the contract now that the season was over, but Mallers said the negotiating process is completed.
The lease was negotiated through the league’s attorney and [Peter Mallers, attorney for the township] and we made changes to our draft of it at the little league attorney’s request but they wanted a longer-term and the trustee is willing to give a two-year term. The little league president and, I think all, the officers, in fact, have had that lease now for several days and to our knowledge, it has not yet been signed.Peter Mallers, Beers Mallers Backs & Salin
According to Beghtel, while they have been negotiating for months he said that to give a week’s notice was not practical for the league. In order to sign the contract, it will need to be approved by the league’s board of directors. Before that can happen, they also need to give parents a chance to give input on how the board should vote.
Beghtel said the contents of the lease take away independence that they have always been afforded. That concerns him because they are often able to make upgrades because businesses offer their services either for free or for a discount. When they accept these donated services, Beghtel said they are only accepted if the contractor is fully certified. According to him, the league could potentially have to pay more for upgrades done if Gnagy were to reject the contractor offering their time for a preferred contractor picked by the trustees. Although they have more funds on hand this season as many tournaments were canceled, Beghtel said they are still a not-for-profit with limited cash flow to make upgrades.
The new contract also outlines COVID-19 precautions that need to be made. Beghtel called the measures unnecessary, saying they have made those changes already and had to follow them to play their full season. Mallers said the guidelines are included in the contract so that there is documentation that the league must follow the guidelines.
“Like all leases, it establishes the rights and responsibilities of parties and that’s what this does,” said Mallers. “It’s for the protection of the little league, the protection of the township, and most importantly it’s for the protection of the children who are participating in the league and their families.”
Although Mallers said they are done negotiating the contract, Beghtel said there are some more things he would like to discuss with Gnagy. According to him, missing from the contract is a guarantee of stability for the league.
“We want to establish the guarantee that these kids have a place to play and there’s no fear that the township could just up and take over the league from us.”
While they have typically operated on one-year contracts, the league asked for a ten-year contract. This was so they could better plan for sponsorships and improvements to the property. Beghtel said Gnagy would not agree to ten years but eventually came up to two years.
Beghtel said if they are not able to discuss the contract more, it is unlikely the league will sign it. If that happens, the situation could get more complicated for both sides.
“At that point, the league actually comes with me,” said Beghtel. “We still own the charter. At that point, there’s not Little League here at this facility and quite possibly, it’s hard to say, if there’ll be a St. Joe Little League in the future.”
He hopes the league would be able to find an adequate facility to replace the township property if they do have to vacate but said he cannot guarantee they could find one that meets the same standards. In that event, the township has said all buildings, bleachers, and anything fixed to the ground would have to stay as it is the property of the township.
Horn said hearing that makes him second-guess donating money for upgrades in the future.
“Never really occurred to me that it was going to be an issue about ownership,” said Horn. “It was what was needed to provide the facilities to operate the league. If we needed a drainage pipe, we went and bought it. If we needed something to fix something, we just went and bought it. It’s just one of those things you do.”
As for the prospect of a baseball season without games at St. Joe, Horn said it is heartbreaking to think about.
“Quite honestly, to have the league being in the position that it’s being placed right now, it’s either-or, my way or the highway, sign this document or get out by Saturday,” said Horn. “It just seems inconceivable that a position would be taken like that.”