According to the Agriculture Department, total U.S. farmland declined by more than 16 million acres from 2002 to 2007. The vast majority of the losses were due to development in rural areas. And with farmland fetching healthy development premiums these days, there doesn't seem to be an end in sight.
Generally, rural economic development -- and the money that comes with it -- is welcomed in Farm Country. Occasionally though, some rural citizens oppose the projects, regardless of their merit.
A case in point can be found in the rolling hills of Northeast Iowa... a pastoral farmstead, chosen by Hollywood as the location for the popular film, "Field of Dreams." Nearly 25 years later developers envision even bigger plans for the site. And "If they build it, people MAY come," but don't expect everyone to be happy about it. Paul Yeager explains.
“If you build it, he will come”
In the 1989 motion picture "Field of Dreams," Kevin Costner’s character, Ray Kinsella hears a voice while walking through his Iowa corn field.
The unseen voice repeatedly calls for Kinsella to do something completely illogical. And Kinsella is compelled to plow up his perfectly fine crop and replace it with -- of all things -- a baseball diamond.
While not everyone embraces the vision, thousands of people DO come to see Shoeless Joe Jackson and other maligned players commonly known as the Black Sox. And Kinsella's Field of Dreams ultimately saves the family farm.
“One night, the plan kind of hit me.”
Denise Stillman just may be a modern day Ray Kinsella.
Denise Stillman, All-Star Ballpark Heaven: “The oddity is that it’s now the wife and not the husband who’s been the idea driver, we’ve had those moments of is the right thing to do, but those were very early on.”
Like Kinsella, Stillman also believes "if she builds it, people will come" to the Iowa corn fields where "Field of Dreams" was filmed nearly 25 years ago. And there's reason to believe she may be right.
The Field of Dreams movie site was a popular attraction in the years following the film's release, and drew 65,000 visitors in good years. But interest may have peaked.
Though she lives closer to Chicago, Stillman is convinced the site near Dyersville, Iowa can once again become a major attraction drawing thousands of visitors annually.
Denise Stillman, All-Star Ballpark Heaven: “The idea is to bring families here for a baseball vacation. So they come for the whole week, come Sunday stay thru Saturday. They would get to experience what Iowa life is like, what this beautiful field is all about, and get to experience.”
Stillman’s plan is to carve out two dozen more diamonds out of neighboring corn fields and invite youth teams from around the country to live out their big league dreams at her proposed "All-Star Ballpark Heaven." During peak summer months, the experience would include as many as 120 baseball and softball teams per week staying on site in dormitories and competing in tournaments -- all within a fly ball of movie history.
Denise Stillman, All-Star Ballpark Heaven: “When people drive up to the facility the first time, we want them to have the wow experience, this is the Nirvana of baseball. This is the holy ground of baseball. I don’t want it to feel like a Disney type of crazy park environment, I want it to be a respectful, reverent almost experience, this is where I need to be. This is a great place.”
The Iowa Legislature recently approved $16.5 million in tax rebates for the project. But the "All-Star Ballpark Heaven" -- which includes indoor facilities for winter months -- is expected to cost $38 million.
Field of Dreams Movie: “Ray it’s time to put away the fantasies and come back to earth.”
Like Kinsella, Stillman has discovered her idea isn't exactly a home run for everyone.
Wayne Ameskamp grew up right next to the movie site. His family even owned part of the famed outfield until a few years ago, but the diamond is still visible from his acreage.
Since the land around the Field of Dreams site is home to more livestock than ballplayers these days, Ameskamp isn't a fan of the plan.
Wayne Ameskamp, neighbor to movie site: “If you get a lot of city people in the farming area we are, tractors, wagons, hay equipment going down the road, going slow, bottleneck traffic.”
Ameskamp isn't the only local resident who would prefer not to lay down the sacrifice for the project. Others have voiced concerns at neighborhood meetings over light pollution, waste, and even the potential for flooding.
Wayne Ameskamp, neighbor to movie site: “Another issue I have about the agricultural smell. If these baseball players come out here and they’re from the city, and they smell the pit manure that we spread on our fields, they may come once, but they’re not going to come back a second time after smelling us.”
Field of Dreams Movie: “Is this heaven? It’s Iowa. I could have sworn it as heaven.”
While it's common for Iowa farmers to refer to manure as "the smell of money," the full rural experience doesn't always pass the small test for some.
And there are other curve balls. Supporters of the project want sewer and water lines run the 3-plus miles from neighboring Dyersville to the site. Doing so, may require annexation.
Jim Heavens, Mayor, Dyersville, Iowa: “I mean, if everything goes to plan, it could be a high reward project for the city. If it doesn’t, as I told one reporter, we’ll have a lot of pieces to pick up.”
An independent feasibility study revealed the "Ball Park Heaven" could pump as much as $40 million into the local economy over its first eight years. But, what if the project is a strike out?
Jim Heavens, Mayor, Dyersville, Iowa: “I’m not really scared about how to fund the actual project, our part of it. Our risk would be if the project doesn’t last for more than a couple of years, we’d have a lot of infrastructure there we couldn’t do too much with.”
Molly Evers: “The initial pitch is wow for the Stillman’s.”
Molly Evers is a city council member and former softball coach and player.
Molly Evers, Dyersville City Council: “I really wish I could wear that hat. But my glove has to stay on the bench for this, I wish I could look at this as a softball player, but I can’t. I’m not allowed at it for this level of assess the value of where does this benefit the taxpayer?”
Evers questions the cost associated with the project and wonders if the town can handle an influx of visitors that could potentially double the Dyersville population of 4,000.
Molly Evers, Dyersville City Council: “Yes, I’m for businesses and hotels, so I’m torn, but I have to watch for every base is touched.”
While supporters of the project tout the economic benefits to Dyersville and surrounding area, critics are concerned over everything from demands upon infrastructure to a regional shortage of labor.
If the city of Dyersville annexes the site, it would be forced to improve municipal services. And Ameskamp wishes he, his rural neighbors and current Dyersville residents had a say in the matter.
Wayne Ameskamp, neighbor to movie site: “I just wish this could come to a vote. Instead of having 7, 10, 20 people debating on this, it should be like a vote, find out how many people in this area, really want these 24 baseball diamonds here.”
Denise Stillman, All-Star Ballpark Heaven: “We are going to be the best neighbors we can be to make it as less of an impact on them.”
Field of Dreams Movie:“Ray, they’ll come. They’ll come to Iowa, for reasons they don’t even know why they’re turning down your driveway. They’ll come innocent as children and gladly hand over the $20 without even thinking.”
Whether the site turns out to be a cash cow remains to be seen. Local residents may have some reservations, but it's definitely possible that soon, they too will be seeing a lot more baseball players on the "Field of Dreams."
“When did these baseball players get here?”
For Market to Market, I’m Paul Yeager.