On a recent evening, 66-year-old Daniel Johns walked around the 138-acre Kidsports Complex off U.S. Highway 93 in north Kalispell. He visits often and has for almost 20 years. It used to be all open prairie covered in alfalfa. Johns would gaze across the empty landscape and imagine baseball diamonds and soccer fields for kids.
Now when he visits he sees thousands of boys, girls, parents and fans using 31 baseball, soccer and softball fields. He sees children and adults with disabilities and special needs playing on Miracle Field, the only state-of-the-art athletic facility accessible for people in wheelchairs and walkers in Montana. He sees the community he grew up in gathered together.
The only way Johns, an original founder and the longtime volunteer president of Kidsports, can describe it is, “heartwarming.”
Since the first games were played in 1999, the youth athletic fields that make up Kidsports Complex have become popular beyond even Johns’ imagination. On any given day in June an average of 5,350 people use the fields during the week and another 5,000 on the weekend, according to a survey the organization conducted in late 2010. Locally, eight organizations with almost 500 kids are based there, including Kalispell Pee Wee and Babe Ruth baseball, the Flathead Soccer Club, Kalispell Youth Softball Association and Flathead Valley Little Guy Football. The Miracle League season begins soon, too, and it’s one of only three such programs in the Northwest.
The Class AA state softball tournament will bring teams from all over the state to Kidsports next weekend, the first of two sanctioned high school state tournaments this year. The Class AA boys and girls state soccer tournament will be held there in the fall. The annual 3 Blind Refs soccer tournament brings teams from across the West to Kalispell.
To meet the growing demand, five new fields are planned as well as additional parking. A new playground is also in the works.
“After it’s all done being built, it will be one of the nicest facilities in the Northwest,” Kalispell Parks and Recreation Director Mike Baker said. “It’s people like Dan Johns who really spearheaded this project. His energy and his enthusiasm was brought to the city and the city council picked up on it and it grew from there.”
In a rather short time, the complex has already managed to become a distinctive part of Kalispell’s identity, but there’s still important work that needs to be done to ensure everything stays intact. A reappraisal of the complex’s property is on the horizon and will likely more than triple the organization’s lease. How will the private nonprofit organization, which charges kids the minimal amount of $25 to play a sport, be able to afford such a steep increase? That’s the tough question city, state and Kidsports officials are facing.
And who else but Johns is finding a way to keep Kidsports strong.
Growing up in Kalispell, Johns was a baseball junkie. He played the sport all the way through high school and into college. He still collects wooden bats. But more than any piece of memorabilia, he cherishes the opportunity he had to play as a kid. For that, he credits the people who devoted and sacrificed a lot to make that happen.
“When I was growing up here, everybody that provided for us was a volunteer,” Johns said. “Our coaches and our umpires were volunteers. We’d have league officials who had a PA system and you’d hear your name over the loudspeaker when you’d come to bat and you thought it was a pretty big deal. They were all volunteers.”
Don Fry was one of the men who inspired Johns at an early age. Fry coached Pee Wee baseball in town for 43 years and taught Johns how to play. Johns took up coaching youth baseball years later and continued for 23 years, retiring in 2005.
It was during the mid-1980s, when Johns was coaching, that the idea behind Kidsports began to develop. The programs at the time were spread out across town and the fields were rugged and rather unfriendly places.
“It was embarrassing,” said Baker, who’s been parks director for 25 years. “The dentists and cosmetic surgeons liked us because the baseballs were breaking kids’ noses and knocking teeth out.”
Johns, an attorney in town with four kids, began driving around town searching for a possible future site for new ball fields.
By the mid-1990s, more and more residents supported Johns’ goal, which had expanded beyond baseball to include all youth athletics. In 1995, a committee was formed to search for and develop a sports complex that could house an array of activities. Johns was named president of the group, which became the Kidsports organization, a private, nonprofit 501(c)(3).
The team of volunteers scoured the valley and settled on a 138-acre piece of idyllic land on the highway at the then-empty north end of town. The acreage was school trust land owned by the state, and the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation agreed to lease the land to the city on behalf of Kidsports for 40 years.
The land was appraised according to its agricultural worth in a remote section of town at the time. But after 20 years, or in 2016, a new appraisal is required, which would determine the property’s new worth. The DNRC must request full market value after the reappraisal. Last year, Kidsports paid $42,910 for the lease. Given the rapid development on the north side of town in the last decade, the property’s value has skyrocketed. Early estimates are that the complex’s land could be now be worth more than $2.5 million, Johns said.
The DNRC is currently in the process of finding an appraiser while Johns and the city have agreed to release 13 acres on the northeast corner near the old DNRC building. That land could then be developed commercially, and Kidsports and the city could enter into a permanent easement on the rest of the property. After the reappraisal, Johns said Kidsports would have three years to raise the money to purchase the easement, which would cement the complex’s standing.
“It’s really an excellent example of partnerships in the community,” Baker said. “That’s what Kidsports is: a partnership.”
The DNRC has expressed its support of Kidsports.
“Kidsports will doubtlessly play a vital role in the creation of a local landmark upon this trust land,” DNRC Director Mary Sexton wrote in a letter to the city and Johns.
Johns is confident a fair deal will be made and support will be found when the time arrives. He’ll make sure of it. Johns said he never expected to be involved this long. It just started as a small endeavor one day. But, like the volunteers before him, he’ll continue until there’s no longer a need, or when the next generation of volunteers is ready to lead.
“When I go up there now, I’ll see young men who were boys when I coached,” he said. “Now they’re coaching their sons. It’s like, OK, it’s working. It’s working.”