There’s a business card that Jamie Hamilton proudly hands out when he’s working as the chairman of the Grand Junction (Colo.) Baseball Committee, the group that runs the NJCAA tournament.
“It says, right there at the bottom, that this is home to the tournament until 2035,” Hamilton said. “It’s a great American story.”
It’s a story that the people of Hutchinson hope to duplicate on April 7, when a seminal vote in the city’s sports history hits ballots. The proposal would authorize a .0035-cent sales-tax increase that would bring in the majority of $29 million to renovate the 53-year-old Hutchinson Sports Arena. The sales tax increase will only be in Hutchinson’s city limits.
It would guarantee the NJCAA Division I men’s national basketball tournament, hosted by Hutchinson since 1949, stays in town for another 25 years. NJCAA executive director Mary Ellen Leicht said last week saying the NJCAA’s executive committee had approved a new, long-term contract, “pending approval of all proposed renovations to the Hutchinson Sports Arena.”
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“The general feeling is that the NJCAA Tournament is one piece of an overall issue here,” Hutchinson city manager John Deardoff said. “Moving forward, the idea is to secure a long-term home for the tournament, but also to address infrastructure issues with the arena. There will be other uses for it.”
Hutchinson Community College has committed $4.5 million to the renovations, which will address concerns Leicht expressed several years ago about the state of the arena that could lead to the tournament being taken from Hutchinson. The concerns included everything from not having a full-sized gym for teams to warm up to shoddy locker rooms and bathrooms.
The renovations would make the Sports Arena, as is, almost unrecognizable: A new exterior; more upper-level seats for disabled patrons; an undersized practice gym turned into new home locker rooms for men’s and women’s teams; existing locker rooms renovated into visiting locker rooms; upgraded media and hospitality rooms and gutting the building’s heating, plumbing and electrical systems.
There’s also two proposed additions – a new main entrance, lobby, offices, concessions stands, restrooms and elevators on the south side; and two full-size practice gyms and a weight room on the north side.
“It’s a showcase event, and our teams love Hutchinson, but when you have a facility that old and renovations haven’t been done to the periphery in 30 years, people began to notice,” Leicht said. “We had a 10-year contract that expired in 2017, so when we approached John Deardoff and (City Council member) Bob Bush several years ago, they had plenty of time to have their own, internal conversation about long-range plans.”
That the NJCAA is willing to put two-plus decades on the table for Hutchinson is a direct result of what happened with baseball in Grand Junction. After a bid from Disney World’s sports complex almost succeeded, Hamilton realized he had to do something drastic to keep the tournament in Grand Junction, where it’s been since 1957.
“We were always on a three-year contract, and that kind of scared us,” Hamilton said. “I saw the NCAA had told Omaha the College World Series was going away if they didn’t improve their stadium. When Omaha delivered, they got a 25-year deal. I thought we might be able to make that work for us.”
The NJCAA agreed, and came back with an $8.3 million price tag in 2009 for improvements to Stocker Stadium and Suplizio Field similar, but not to the scale of what might happen to the Sports Arena.
Grand Junction raised $1 million on its own and got the other $7.3 million through a bond it pays $300,000 per year on for 25 years. The stadium also houses four local high schools and NCAA Division II Colorado Mesa University.
“The support for what we’re trying to do has been pretty overwhelming,” Deardoff said. “We’ve been pretty transparent about not throwing out a bunch of things that are going to be there, but we will be active in going after other events. Once the renovations are done, we’re going to be able to make a play for a lot of things.”