Athletes, parents and volunteers gathered Saturday at Challenger Field to say goodbye to a baseball diamond that has formed athletic skills and character for generations of McLennan County residents with disabilities.
But those who celebrated the end of the Challenger Little League season with hamburgers and ice cream had reason to be optimistic about the future of the growing 31-year-old league.
Plans are 90% complete for a new $6.7 million Lake Air Little League ballfield complex within shouting distance of the current Challenger Field at 2021 N. 44th St. The complex will include two wheelchair-accessible fields set aside for the Challenger athletes, city parks and recreation director Jonathan Cook said. City officials expect construction to start on the complex with six to eight baseball and softball fields early next year and wrap up by year’s end, leaving time for the grass to grow in for for the 2023 season.
When they return the ballplayers will find two fields featuring full-size diamonds, with upgrades including new accessible restrooms, irrigation, lighting, concession stands and bleachers.
“Lake Air Little League and Challenger have such a rich, long-running history, and we’re hoping to honor that in the design,” Cook said.
He said the city is working with Challenger officials to find a temporary venue to use in the 2022 season.
The ballfield complex is part of an ongoing redevelopment of the land in and around the Extraco Events Center, partially funded by a venue tax that county voters approved to be added to lodging and car rentals. The county has already used the venue tax receipts to build a multipurpose facility called the Base, and it has arranged to relocate Waco Independent School District’s Paul Tyson Field to allow for an Extraco Events Center expansion.
The new Tyson, partially funded by the venue tax, is well underway, but the ballfield project envisioned between the U.S. Army recruitment center and North 44th Street is taking more time. The city will remove the road that now bisects the tract and create a new entry on Trice Avenue for the Cobbs Recycling Center.
Michelle McCollum, who has been a volunteer with Challenger Little League since she helped get it started in 1990, said the upgrade and expansion is welcome, especially considering the growth of the league.
Before the pandemic, the league by 2019 had grown to 15 teams with 224 players ages 4 to adult. The league was dormant in 2020 due to COVID-19, and some players chose to sit out the 2021 season due to health concerns, leaving only 14 teams.
“That’s still incredible,” McCollum said.
She expects the numbers to rebound quickly.
“There is a need in our community to offer adaptive sports for youth and young adults in the area,” she said. “The more that youth in our special needs community can do, the more they realize they want to do.”
She said Lake Air Little League and the city of Waco have been good partners in the relocation process.
“They have been so receptive to hear what the needs of our players are,” McCollum said. “From everything I’m told, we’ll have a much better facility.”
She said she expects the Challenger League will need to do some fundraising to pay for some amenities at the field, such as shade for the bleachers.
Cook said project officials are still analyzing how much can be done within the project budget, and the final answer to that question will come with the bidding process later this year.
He said when funding is available, the city would like to add inclusive playground equipment around the ballfield complex for players, their families and the whole community to use.
Inclusive playground equipment is also part of the emerging vision for the city’s redevelopment of Lions Park, which is about half a mile from the new ballfields site.