Exeter Unified begins search for new sports complex unless city will sell or swap land for Dobson Field
By Reggie Ellis
EXETER – Exeter’s two largest government entities have shared Dobson Field on the eastern edge of the city for more than half a century. The city-owned sports complex has always been home to the Exeter Union High School baseball program and the youth sports that feed into its other programs including softball and soccer.
But those days may be coming to an end as the Exeter Unified School District (EUSD) is considering relocating the EUHS’ home ball field across town unless the city of Exeter will sell Dobson Field to the district or at least consider a land swap to keep Lions Stadium at Dobson Field as the home of the Monarchs.
The issue of Dobson Field resurfaced at the Feb. 12 meeting of the EUSD Board. The non-action item was a discussion about the possible purchase of land to build a sports park facility for Exeter Union High School athletics. EUSD Superintendent George Eddy said the item was primarily a question and answer between school board members at local real estate broker Tricia Kirksey about identifying blocks of available land near the city limits that could house a roughly 18-acre sports facility that could accommodate baseball, softball and soccer fields as well as outdoor basketball courts. There was no public comment on the item.
Eddy said pushing high school facilities beyond the city limits is not ideal and wasn’t the district’s first plan. Originally, EUSD approached the city over 10 years ago about the possibility of purchasing Dobson Field, located just east of the district office and the EUHS campus. The field is already home to Lions Stadium, the home ballfield for the Monarchs baseball team, and was surrounded by school district property, including the Transportation/Operations/Maintenance facility and Kaweah High School, the district’s continuation high school and alternative education facility.
“The best thing for the whole community is to work with the city to purchase Dobson Field, upgrade the facilities, pave the parking lots and improve the fields of play,” Eddy said.
Eddy said if the city isn’t interested in selling Dobson Field, the school district would consider swapping the sports complex for its acreage on the west side. Both parcels are roughly 18-20 acres and the parcel near the corner of Belmont and Visalia roads will become far more valuable once the 420-acre block surrounding it begins to be developed for single family homes.
“Either way, the city stands to make a lot of money for the property,” Eddy said.
Benching Youth Sports
City manager Adam Ennis said the biggest concern expressed by the Exeter City Council is the loss of city-owned facilities for its youth and adult recreation leagues, such as softball, baseball and soccer.
“There is really no where else to do these programs other than Dobson,” Ennis said.
Ennis said swapping land with the district’s acreage on the west side “didn’t work for the council” but that doesn’t mean negotiations couldn’t continue. He said the city and the council’s primary concern is maintaining the public’s access to recreation facilities.
“The council is trying to keep these open to the public and there has been issues with that in the past, according to the council,” Ennis said.
Ennis, who has only been with the city since 2018, said the council mentioned two instances where the EUSD had limited city use of district facilities. In 2012, EUSD began limiting access to the stadium which many in the community used to walk at night during the heat of summer or to get in some weekend exercise. The all-weather track was easier on the joints of runners and the lights at night provided safety for those who exercised in the cooler summer evenings. At the time, the district said it had to limit public access to the track because of vandalism and litter, which took district resources to clean up. After half a year of public comments and discussions, the district settled on public hours that seemed to work for most of the community.
While that complaint didn’t involve city government, there was some contention over Parks and Recreation’s use of the high school’s gymnasiums for city league youth basketball. The city said the district had limited their access to indoor basketball courts to the point where they were unable to schedule all of their games on the same day. Both sides began talking about charging the other for the use of facilities to cover costs associated with security, litter, vandalism and utility costs.
Eddy, who has served in the EUSD administration for seven years, said limiting access for youth sports doesn’t make sense for the district since those teams are the feeder programs for its high school sports rosters. He also said the district has invested money into youth programs. He said the district paid to add lighting to its football practice field so that the Exeter Youth Football teams didn’t have to rent lights to practice at night during the short days of late fall and early winter.
“Our high school programs are built on the youth programs,” Eddy said. “Why would we limit access for our future athletes?”
Without a land swap or purchasing Dobson Field, Eddy said the EUSD board has started to look to the city’s west side for land to build a sports complex. He said having additional fields that are kept up to CIF standards would allow EUHS to host baseball and softball tournaments of up to 14 and 32 teams respectively. Eddy said tournaments currently charge between $400 and $800 per team.
“If we are able to bring in tournaments that is more money for the economy of the city,” Eddy said. “They will eat and shop at our small businesses and generate tax revenue for the city when they buy gas.”
EUSD has already prepared two preliminary renderings of the layout of a new complex which would include two baseball fields and two softball fields which can accommodate two soccer fields across the four smaller ballfields as well as restrooms and concessions. Depending on the size of the property, Eddy said there may be room for four baseball fields, two of which could be used by Little League.
Lions Stadium Strikeout
The biggest loser in either scenario would be Lions Stadium. Built by the Lions Club in 1950s and home to the Tulare-Kings All-Star game for 50 years, Lions Stadium is the home field for Monarchs baseball. Kevin Kirkman, who has helped coach the team for more than a decade and served as the head coach for the last six seasons, said funding the baseball team would be a lot easier if EUHS was able to host tournaments.
Kirkman said the city has treated the baseball team very well but that the baseball team has to take care of every aspect of maintenance and upgrades at Lions Stadium. While the city has been a good partner, Kirkman said they do not have the money to keep the fields up to standards. Many of the fields have gopher holes that can create safety hazards and the JV field is often called “sticker field” because it is littered with goat heads. He said the EUHS Baseball Boosters and Exeter Little League are the only two entities who have made significant investments into the fields at Dobson.
“If the city doesn’t have the money they should look into selling to the school district,” said Kirkman who has been involved in Little League or Monarch baseball since 1997. “We used to have adult softball leagues and you don’t see those anymore.”
Just in the last decade, Kirkman estimates the Lions Club and EUHS Baseball Boosters have put $70,000 into Lions Stadium. He said they invested $40,000 to upgrade the wood bleachers and $20,000 to upgrade the playing field. Kirkman said he and his coaches volunteer their time to mow the outfield, repair in the infield once per week as well as do annual maintenance to the bullpens and dugouts.
“We have put so many hours and so much money into Lions Stadium, I can’t imagine seeing it go unused,” Kirkman said. “No one will take care of it like we take care of it. This is a first class stadium and I would hate to see that go away.”
The idea of purchasing land on the west side of the city will come back for discussion at the school board’s March 11 meeting.
Ennis said the council has been discussing previous deals and new ideas on the idea of selling Dobson Field or a land swap in closed session for the past few months but the council had repeatedly given him direction not to give up control of Dobson Field. That doesn’t mean a deal can’t be worked out, and Ennis said the council did agree they needed to have better communication with the school district.
“We’ve got some work to do for some type of joint meeting,” Ennis said.