STERLING – It’s year 8 of Larry Ybarra’s dream to bring a huge sports complex to a small town. While he admits that the road has been rough, he promises that the project won’t just fade away.
He has obtained 22 of the 45 acres he had envisioned for the ambitious project. He has an option for an additional 45 acres in the same area – at the northwest corner of Oak Grove Avenue and 23rd Street, off Lynn Boulevard.
But he still has no investors who are firmly committed to the private business venture, and he is seeking a second extension to retain annexation rights and the zoning designation he needs to build the multipurpose facility.
“My wife knows there have been some sleepless nights,” Ybarra said. “It can be hard to function during the day when it’s always in the back of my mind. I pace at night to think about how to fund it. It’s been a drain.”
Ybarra is a financial representative for Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance and a former baseball coach for Newman Central Catholic High School. His vision includes a football stadium that would seat 4,500, a 3,000-seat baseball stadium, an 800-seat softball quad with batting cages, a multi-use air dome, and a 30,000-square-foot multipurpose building that could be used for everything from baseball and athletic training to roller-skating and laser tag.
‘No plans to scale back’
The only concession he has made to date is that the baseball facility would be done at a later phase because of the costs involved in making it worthy of luring a minor league team.
“We have no plans to scale back,” Ybarra said. “For everything to work properly, you can’t water down the project. If it’s $8 million as opposed to $6 million, so be it.”
He was advised to raise about 35 percent of the money through private investors and have banks finance the rest.
The petition to extend the special-use permit for a proposed sports complex is again in the hands of the city’s Plan Commission.
Because the necessary funding has not been secured for the now $8 million project, the Ybarras are asking for an extension until Jan. 1, 2015, to find investors. Without the extra time, the two parcels of property would be deannexed from the city and lose the R-1 special use zoning designation needed for the complex.
The original annexation agreement was finalized on April 16, 2012. It stipulated that construction was to begin within 1 year of the agreement and be mostly completed within 18 months.
In May 2013, the agreement was extended to Jan. 1, 2014. On Dec. 2, the City Council sent the latest request to the Plan Commission. That panel will consider the petition, in the names of Larry and his brother John Ybarra, on Dec. 19. John owns the land with Larry and is a silent partner in the project.
Years of research
Ybarra and his wife, Mardi, say they have done years worth of research to validate the feasibility of the project. His revenue estimates were based on information he gathered from similar projects in areas with comparable demographics.
“Every sports complex we looked at had down times, but they more than made up for it in peak times,” Ybarra said. “After paying the loan interest, the projections for the first couple of years were $800,000 profit.”
He believes those numbers are conservative with the potential he sees in drawing people from outside the area. He says there would be several potential revenue streams from concessions, fees to use the facilities, charges for tournaments, and use of the multipurpose building for concerts and other nonsporting events.
He says the use of artificial turf would bring down maintenance costs. All of the land involved is also within the enterprise zone, and he has talked to the city about TIF possibilities.
“The selling points are based on how all this is going to flow together,” Ybarra said. “The whole purpose of this is to revitalize the community. I want these activities to draw people here so they will spend money in the area.”
Ybarra says that prospective investors have, for the most part, been receptive to the plan, but don’t take the next step, leaving him with a few “fence sitters.” Reasons for not wanting to sign on the dotted line usually involve perceptions of the overall state of the economy.
“Things have gotten better [since the recession], but people are still concerned about the economy,” Ybarra said. “Corporations are sitting on cash, and people who had money invested in the stock market took a bath in 2008. Many are worried that the market is artificially propped up by the stimulus, and they anticipate a big drop.”
Ybarra said he did consider the nonprofit avenue a few years ago, but decided it wasn’t the best route for a project of this scale.
“Setting it up as a 501(c)(3) would have made it very difficult for the community to benefit,” he said. “There are special grant opportunities specifically for sports complexes, and people could write off donations, but to do what we’re doing on this scale, you really have to make it a business.”
‘On pins and needles’
Mardi Ybarra has been involved with her husband’s project from the beginning, helping to research demographics, search for grants, attend educational seminars, and talk to bankers.
She said that with all the time, energy and money spent, the project has been a bit of an emotional roller-coaster.
“He’s traveled so much to make presentations, comes back feeling hopeful,” Mardi said. “Then he’s on pins and needles while he waits. After a lot of sleepless nights, the answer is almost always ‘the timing isn’t right.’”
She said they have some tried-and-true coping mechanisms for the stress.
“We stay spiritually connected and pray about it,” she said. “We find guidance and answers that help us find a glimmer of hope when we feel we’ve exhausted all our avenues.”
She says that exercise also works for her husband.
“When he can’t sleep, he’ll get on the treadmill at 3 or 4 in the morning and then go back to bed,” she said.
Mardi said they had visited many sporting facilities in other communities, which helps to keep them motivated.
“Our schools have so many great athletes,” she said. “It would be nice to draw other athletes here and for our rural kids to have a place to call theirs. This project was developed with a five-county area in mind. It was never meant to be just for Newman or Sterling.”
Despite the difficulties, Mardi says her husband is still determined to bring the project to fruition.
“Larry was born and raised here; he coached Newman baseball for 25 years,” she said. “He’s eager to support the community and give something back. He has put so much into it, it would really hurt to walk away from it.”