Damon Zumwalt was on horseback when he first laid eyes on the property.

Now, 15 years later, that same 300-acre meadow on the back side of a dude ranch is undergoing a remarkable transformation.

Four college-sized baseball fields have been constructed and will be open for play later this week when 28 teams from Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin gather for what is being billed as the soft opening of the Woodside Sports Complex. By late next month, four youth baseball/softball fields will be completed, and by next summer 10 soccer fields, dormitories to house 1,000 athletes and a massive cafeteria to feed them should be finished.

All of the fields are or will be covered with artificial turf, which means the ability to play shortly after a rain storm and limited maintenance. The dugouts on the baseball diamonds are each equipped with water fountains and electrical service. Some of the fields have lights.

But this is only the beginning of what is anticipated to be a $40 million project on three sites designed to further elevate the growing youth sports experience in the Wisconsin Dells area.

The opening comes 11 years after Zumwalt purchased the ranch. Since that time he has built a conference center, theater and indoor basketball court. The construction of the baseball facility, which was interrupted by a contentious divorce and the recession, went full bore in April.

“It’s been really hard but I’m a little stubborn. Maybe a better way of saying it is I’m committed,” Zumwalt, 65, said last week as he checked the progress of the project. “I know what this can do here and what it can do for the community and what it can do for kids.”

The development includes more than 350 acres at Woodside Ranch east of Mauston. Zumwalt also has purchased 50 acres of land in Wisconsin Dells adjacent to a proposed high school with an option on an additional 50 acres. Zumwalt also is buying the 90,000-square-foot Wisconsin Dells Center at Chula Vista Resort. Since Mike Kaminski built the white dome structure in 2007, it has hosted a plethora of youth sports tournaments, including volleyball and wrestling.

“We are certainly looking for big things between the (three) facilities,” said Lance Massey, a former standout outfielder at the U.S. Air Force Academy and the University of Oklahoma and now the general manager at Woodside Sports Complex. “This is not just about baseball and soccer. We don’t want to limit ourselves in any way.”

The properties are intended to attract athletes in multiple sports, including rugby, lacrosse and field hockey, to the region and bring 672,000 visitors with a direct economic impact of $52 million a year, according to an economic impact study for Woodside. Massey and his staff have their eyes on camps and Little League tournaments, and plan to bid on the WIAA state soccer and softball tournaments. College and high school conference tournaments and regional, national and international amateur sporting events are also being targeted. Some tournaments could draw 200 to 300 teams, Massey said.

When construction is complete, likely in 2014, the outdoor facilities will total 14 baseball/softball fields and 20 soccer fields. An indoor basketball and volleyball facility at the Woodside complex near Mauston that also would house the cafeteria and offices is planned.

“It’s beautiful. They haven’t missed a thing,” said Tom Lechnir, the former longtime head baseball coach who won two NCAA Division III championships at UW-Oshkosh and who saw the facility for the first time last week. “It’s just another great venue for Wisconsin and certainly for baseball. It’s a destination.”

‘The capital of youth sports’

Zumwalt knows his way around sports. The son of a Baptist preacher who at one time had a church in Reedsburg, Zumwalt raised five children, played football and wrestled at UCLA and, in 1967, founded Contemporary Services Corp. The company, with annual revenues of $100 million, provides crowd management and security at sporting events and concerts including the Olympics, Super Bowl, World Series, Rose Bowl and NASCAR events. His staff is easy to spot. They wear yellow windbreakers with “CSC Event Staff” in bold black letters on their back.

Now, after exiting the recession and a divorce, both of which delayed work on the complex, Zumwalt is creating his own sports venues and is taking advantage of Wisconsin Dells and its 9,000 hotel rooms, some of the world’s largest waterparks and scores of attractions.

“The Dells played a big part in the decision,” Zumwalt said. “This place will become the capital of youth sports in this country.”

His competition would be the 220-acre ESPN Wide World of Sports complex at Disney World near Orlando, Fla. The facility, which opened in 1997, includes 15 baseball and softball fields including a 9,500-seat stadium; eight soccer fields, a cross country course, track and field venue, two indoor arenas and a 10-court tennis complex. It also has sweltering summer weather.

“Disney’s a wonderful place but some of the kids are suffering in the heat,” Zumwalt said. “It doesn’t get as hot up here so it will be better for the kids.”

The Wisconsin Dells area already is a hotbed of youth sports including baseball, softball, basketball, hockey, volleyball and wrestling. Tournaments in those sports have blossomed over the last six years and are helping to fill hotels, restaurants and wave pools.

Come for sports,

stay for waterparks

It’s unclear how many people come to the Dells each year because of youth sports. But a 2010 study by the Wisconsin Dells Visitor & Convention Bureau estimated that a family with a child playing in a youth tournament spends $353 per trip to the Dells, not including lodging or registration fees. They also spend 2.8 nights per visit, with one of those nights dedicated to nonsports activities.

A tournament also provides built-in marketing for the Dells, said Tifani Jones, director of sales for the visitors bureau.

“It provides them an introduction to the destination and then they come back,” said Jones, who said she believes Zumwalt’s project will bring in new sports and lead to growth in existing sports like baseball, where there are a limited number of fields. “We haven’t seen what the full potential is yet (for youth sports). We know there is pent-up demand.”

Zumwalt’s original plans called for all of his sports facilities to be housed at Woodside Ranch, founded in the 1920s. But when the city of Wisconsin Dells, which was considering building its own sports complex, discovered that project was untenable, Zumwalt was approached and agreed to buy land and build part of his project in the Dells.

Chris Lechnir, the brother of Tom Lechnir, was on the ad hoc committee that studied the city plan and was the associate principal and athletic director at Wisconsin Dells High School. He now works for Zumwalt and is the vice president of business operations at Woodside Sports Complex.

“I think it’s hard for people to visualize this until they get here,” said Chris Lechnir, who is speaking at conferences around the state and will give officials from the WIAA a tour of the facility next month. “Damon has spared no expense. The attention to detail is unbelievable.”

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