Anyone who can remember back far enough will remember how Tommy Forrest Ball Park had seen better days.
A weedy outfield which resembled a giant warning track, dugouts which flooded any time a rain shower passed through, a suspect scoring booth and a backstop with furled fences.
Fast-forward to now and it’s perhaps one of the nicest-looking outdoor facilities in the NWT.
The final piece of the revitalization puzzle was officially unveiled on July 14 as a new playground opened up to the public. It’s the last major project of the third phase of what has been a multi-year operation, known as NewLife4Tommy, to make the park a showpiece for the city.
“We had an inspector there (last) Tuesday morning and it passed,” said Garrett Hinchey, president of the Yk Fastball League. “As soon as we took the caution tape off of it, there were kids playing on it that afternoon. You don’t realize how fulfilling it all is until you see it in action.”
As mentioned, the playground is the last part of what’s been a long process to give a facelift to a park which has been around for nearly 60 years.
It’s been a lot of work, said Hinchey.
“The whole idea about sprucing up Tommy Forrest started with getting grass in the outfield,” he said. “It was a dustbowl for so many years; I can remember watching my dad play on it when I was growing up and it didn’t look like a real field.”
The grass installation happened in 2015 thanks to a $60,000 grant from the city as well as the league raising money through a truck raffle. From there, momentum started to grow about doing more for the park in terms of small improvements.
But a funny thing happened in 2017.
The league began running a Chase The Ace raffle, starting out small as they usually do. It grew and grew to the point that half a dozen locations were selling tickets by the time the jackpot reached six figures in May of that year. When Darlene Allen of Inuvik pulled the ace of spades, she won more than $300,000 while the league raised more than $500,000.
Hinchey said the windfall from that meant they could look at some big-ticket items sooner rather than later on down the road.
“The Chase The Ace went beyond even our wildest expectations,” he said. “Now we had a lot of money and so we put together a plan to take to the city.”
That plan saw the league agree to put in $140,000 per year under a three-year agreement beginning in 2018, with the city kicking in $60,000 per year under the deal, with plenty of new infrastructure going into the area. This is the third and final year of that agreement.
Hinchey said the only thing that hasn’t been replaced is the fencing around the diamond itself.
“New dugouts, new backstop behind home plate, new fencing around the beer garden, new bleachers, new grass, new netting to protect the surrounding roadways (Franklin Ave.), new concession area, new playground,” he said. “We’ve had so much support from the community with businesses donating supplies in-kind or giving us discounts on purchasing what we needed and the city has been behind us all the way.”
People buying tickets for Chase The Ace were a big part of that support as well, he added.
Players from the league itself have done a lot of the legwork to make the park look as good as it does, said Hinchey, with one person in particular doing a lot of the heavy lifting.
“Rob Johnson has spearheaded a lot of what’s happened in terms of maintenance,” he said. “We like to joke that it’s his field of dreams but he’s done so much. We have a great group of guys who are amazing and who jump in to help whenever they can.”
You can count Mayor Rebecca Alty as a fan of the new playground as she said it’s a great addition to what’s already a great public space.
“You have the kids watching softball with parents, kids coming from around the neighbourhood to play and getting out to exercise,” she said. “It’s a great community asset to have and once the (distancing) restrictions are lifted, I can see it getting plenty of use.”
Alty was part of the council which approved the three-year deal between the league and city before she won the mayoral election and said the league coming with a plan made it a lot easier for council back then to agree to the deal.
“When you have the money and the plan in place, it certainly moves things along a lot quicker,” she said. “Chase The Ace certainly accelerated things for them and we took that into consideration when we approved the agreement.”
As for the playground, it’s been all positive reviews so far and that adds to the sport of softball continuing to grow, said Hinchey.
“I’m happy that the sport seems to be pretty healthy,” he said. “We’ve grown in terms of teams and we have around 200 kids playing minor ball. Having the park the way it is adds something to the city and it’s great that we were able to help it look as good as it does. I’m really proud of what we’ve done.”
But at the end of the day, Hinchey said he looks forward to just playing ball.
“No more contracts, no more tenders, no more haggling, just playing,” he said.