It’s been over two years since the cracks of hundreds of bats have been heard throughout the tri-county area, but that is about to change as Corky’s Early Bird Men’s Softball Classic is scheduled to return this summer.
Though it won’t be quite so early – pushing the date back from the usual first weekend of May to the very last weekend in July – the timing of the tournament is far from the most noticeable change in the 41-year-old tournament played in Owatonna, Faribault and Waseca. For the first time in the tournament’s history, Corky’s will be hosting a women’s division.
“I’ve tried to do a women’s bracket during the May tournaments and it just never worked,” said Tournament Director Loren Dietz. “I don’t know if it’s because people are trying to get kids through school yet or what, but it feels like we are already having better success with getting women’s teams to show interest by having the tournament in the summer.”
Dietz said that he wasn’t sure what to expect with the women’s bracket, but he is excited to reignite the legacy of women’s softball in southern Minnesota – even if for just one summer. Years ago, an all-women’s softball tournament organized by Terry and Dawn Witter of Medford ran for more than 30 years in Owatonna. Dietz said the tournament was wildly popular, bringing in nearly 100 teams of women to the city in July. The tournament ended in the early 2000s.
“Women’s softball has taken a decline over the last few years, I think in general there just are not a lot of big women’s tournaments anymore or tournaments that offer a women’s bracket – I only know of a couple in Minnesota,” Dietz said, noting that the Corky’s women’s tournament will take place on July 31 at Alexander Park in Faribault. “But women are looking for it, there’s a real need for it. If Corky’s could pick up that tradition that was started by Terry and Dawn, then we would be happy to do that and to be a part of that legacy.”
The real question, however, will be whether the timing of the tournament really is the reason the bracket successfully filled up when Dietz opened it for registration less than a month ago. Still hoping for two more teams to fully round out the 16-team bracket, Dietz said the success of this year’s event could determine whether or not the “Early Bird” tournament permanently moves to a late-summer date.
“We’re trying to figure out which would be better for both our fundraising and concessions,” Dietz said, adding that over the years Corky’s has donated roughly $300,000 to the Owatonna community. “The initial thought was that concessions should be better in the summer because it’s warmer out and more people will come out, but at the same time when it’s too hot then nobody spends much on concessions.”
“On the other hand, there really isn’t another big tournament in May like ours,” he continued. “It has always been a good niche in May to get people out of the house and have a big tournament.”
Dietz said the discussion began at the beginning of the year about when to have the softball tournament in relation to the restrictions that were in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, the committee elected to postpone the tournament to a later date hoping things would be open by then, but ultimately had to cancel the event altogether.
“Our vendors didn’t want to take the risk and we didn’t want to have them take that risk either,” Dietz said. “So we played it conservative this year and decided it would be easy to move it out to the end of July. We still didn’t know how everything would play out, but we wanted to have the event and make sure everyone would enjoy it.”
Because weekends fill up fast both for ballparks and teams, Dietz said it was crucial to make a decision as soon as possible. With most teams starting to plan out their summer scheduled beginning in February – and with all the hard work put in to organize the tournament months before it ever takes place – the decision was made quickly and easily.
As far as the impact it has had with getting the teams to sign up, Dietz said he only lost about 25 teams to other tournaments and scheduling conflicts. Much of that was rectified with the introduction of the women’s bracket, but he is still hoping for 10 more men’s teams to sign up. The registration period will remain open until the beginning of July.
Also new to the tournament this year will be the presence of Schroeder’s Concessions, a fair booth based out of Faribault that offers everyone’s favorite fried treats, Dietz said. The “world famous” pork burgers will still be offered throughout the entire event, to which Dietz said they usually serve at least 10,000 of their signature food.
“We have a deal with each of our vendors to contribute back to the tournament, which will in turn be donated back into the community through a charity each year,” Dietz said.
This year, the tournament has already donated $25,000 to the We All Play Inclusive Playground and Miracle Field in Owatonna, and Dietz said they have challenged other businesses in the community to match that.
While the tournament is largely about the fun and camaraderie for the players, Dietz said the number one reason he organizes the event each year is because of the impact the tournament can have on the Owatonna community.
“This tournament is a lot of work, I put in about 600 hours a year on it,” Dietz said. “But I do it because I want to make sure we can make the most impact that we can. I want to leave a legacy for Owatonna from the tournament with the goal to eventually donate $1 million to the community overall.”
In order to do that, Dietz said there is one key element that continues to be missing year after year: the locals.
“We would like to continue to pour money back into the community and restore all the ballparks we play on,” Dietz said, noting that the games all take place on Owatonna, Faribault and Waseca fields. “We would love to see more of the local community come out to support the event.”
Owatonna airport funding needs and other area priority transportation needs were on the docket when U.S. Rep. Jim Hagedorn met with airport and city officials Tuesday afternoon.
The Degner Regional Airport in Owatonna has awarded bids for a new public T hangar project, but the airport is looking to build a fourth hangar with a projected price tag of just over $1.6 million. All of the other hangars are currently full, prompting the need to expand.
Airport officials were looking to use grant money from the Federal Aviation Administration to do that, but the FAA only allocates $150,000 a year, according to Airport Manager Dave Beaver. While the airport can stock up those funds for a maximum to four years, that still wouldn’t make a significant dent in the project cost.
“The alternative to that is to borrow other airport’s allocations if they’re not going to use it and the FAA encourages that so the money is being used on the airports,” Troy Klecker, Owatonna’s community development director, told Hagedorn during his tour of the airport on Tuesday.
After calling around to various public use airports in Minnesota, Beaver said they were able to connect and the Owatonna airport now has eight years’ worth of the $150,000 allocation through the Airport Improvement Program. Program funds can be spent on a variety of projects.
The problem is the program started in 2001 and has only been allocating $150,000 per year since then, despite construction costs increasing. Every airport receives $150,000 no matter the size, Klecker added.
“There’s hardly any project we can put that $150,000 towards and make it work,” Beaver said, adding that other comparable airports are having to borrow money all over the state to make their projects work and leverage federal dollars.
“I guess it’s working, we’re able to fund the project, but we’re tying up future funds which may put us a little behind down the road,” Beaver said, adding that it would be nice to somehow see an allocation increase.
Hagedorn said he’d like to see an infrastructure bill at the Capitol, adding that Republicans and Democrats should be able to work something out. He is optimistic that both sides want to get that done. He said he is hopeful that a transportation bill would allow for substantial funding to help airports fund their upgrades and he believes a bill can get passed.
“I think President Biden and the Democrats are quickly running out of gas and their agenda, their policies aren’t working, they’re not able to get their big things through Congress anymore, and they need some wins. And this would be a good win for the American people and it would be a shared win,” Hagedorn said.
Beaver said he anticipates further growth of the airport, highlighting what it can offer to the community, local economy and businesses. Other airport projects that are on the to-do list include extending the runway by 1,500 feet and updating the lighting.
In other news
Klecker also discussed the east side corridor, another high priority transportation plan for Owatonna and Steele County. A good chunk of the population is on the north end and with the incoming new high school on the east end of Owatonna, they are looking at ways to avoid having everyone travel through the middle of town to get there. An east side corridor would help bring a ring around the community to that new high school site. It is probably a $10 to 15 million project with pedestrian and trail access.
“That’s where we’re hoping that this could potentially qualify for some earmark project, much like the airport did,” City Administrator Kris Busse said, adding that they wanted to let Hagedorn know ahead of time to potentially receive some future support.
The project is still a few years away, and planning is still in the works on the 2040 Transportation Plan.
Despite the pandemic and virtual meetings for the past year, Owatonna Business Women is booming.
OBW has had an increase in interest in the last year with 25 new members join during the 2020-21 fiscal year. Typically the organization sees only a handful of new members per year.
“It’s not uncommon to have a handful of different guests come throughout the years, but to have new members join, I would say at the absolute most, five,” said recently elected OBW President Lauren Kozelka.
OBW connects, amplifies and empowers women by offering educational and civic awareness opportunities, while providing personal and professional development. The group was hovering around 60 members total this past year, while in years prior, that number sat around 40, according to Kozelka.
Members may have joined knowing they needed a way to still connect with people throughout the pandemic. Joining gave women the opportunity to still be a part of an organization, network and experience some professional development in “a crazy COVID year,” Kozelka notes.
It was a year of new opportunities and programs for OBW, like virtual coffee talks via Zoom, virtual happy hours and inviting featured speakers to connect online. OBW’s leadership and development chair hosted LeanIn Circles over the lunch break to really focus on personal development or professional development depending on the topic for that month.
Hosting the Women of Achievement event in a virtual format this year may have had a bigger influence on getting people involved in the organization, Kozelka suggested. OBW has also been more active on LinkedIn this year, she added.
“It’s been so awesome every single time I’ve seen an email come through my inbox that says, ‘We have a new member,’” she said.
OBW Membership Chair Rachel Blaedorn has some ideas about why the group saw an increase in membership this year.
Common reasons new members decided to join this year include personal and professional growth opportunities, the chance to build new relationships with women in the community, making a positive impact, and supporting and encouraging other members. In the face of the pandemic, these characteristics in an organization were more important than ever.
“There’s a couple of main trends as we were going through asking our new members why they decided to join Owatonna Business Women and a lot of it just boils down to wanting to have a place to connect with other women in the community and gain relationships,” Blaedorn said. “With COVID happening last year so many people felt isolated, and so we continued to have our monthly meetings, even though they were virtually and I think that that helped a lot of people connect.”
After a year of being apart, one group of local professionals has decided to raise funds to support a community event that will bring families together for free.
The Southeast Minnesota Realtors (SEMR) Service Committee for the Owatonna area is pledging dollars raised in their current giving campaign to the movies in the park event provided by the city’s parks and recreation department. Ryan Gillespie, who heads up the local committee, said the group felt that this would be the perfect opportunity to bring people together again.
“When we would go to the movies in the park we would make it a whole family ordeal,” Gillespie said. “You can bring blankets and chairs, the kids are able to run around as we’re waiting for the movie to start and they get to see their friends from school during the summer break, it’s multi-generational with babies and grandparents, and it’s just a nice way to end the day.”
The giving campaign, which began in mid-May and will run throughout June, was sparked by the SEMR, a membership organization for realtors and lenders based out of Rochester. The organization develops and delivers programs, services and products to help their members succeed throughout the southeastern part of the state, Gillespie said, and often try to have their hubs in the different communities they serve engage and give back.
Earlier this year, Gillespie said a representative from SEMR contacted her about a new giving opportunity. SEMR pledges to match funds raised by local committees up to $10,000, allowing the committees themselves to pick the beneficiary.
“This is a much bigger step than we’ve taken in the past when it comes to serving our community,” Gillespie said. “It was wide open to us on who we would direct the funds to, which was really exciting.”
The local group knew they wanted to sponsor the free community event, but it would only take a small portion of their fundraising to do so. The group then identified Transitional Housing of Steele County as a second beneficiary to gift the rest of the funds raised.
“We would love for these funds to target helping homeless youth. I know they have kits they give out to kids in need at the middle school and high school and this could possible help support,” Gillespie said. “But we also trust them to find where the greatest need will be in their organization.”
Eric Brownlow, the association executive and government affairs director for SEMR, said the organization’s board of directors saw an opportunity to allow their members to help the communities they live in, work in and care about deeply.
“We have never don’t this before and it has been a massive undertaking in coordination, but we have loved every step of the way,” Brownlow said. “Each year, our local member services committees do things in support of their local communities, but we have never tried to all give at once nor have we ever offered matching funds.”
SEMR has pledged to match dollars up to $10,000 for the community service committees that include Owatonna, Albert Lea, Austin, Rochester and Winona.
As of Tuesday morning, the Owatonna SEMR Giving Campaign has raised $3,320. Gillespie said with the matching amount from SEMR that they already have enough to cover the movies in the park for the rest of the year as well as gift a sizeable donation to Transitional Housing. Additionally, Gillespie said most of the fundraising events they have done thus far have been primarily for the realtors and lenders who are members of SEMR, but anyone and everyone is invited to give.
Gillespie said several several businesses and individuals have supported this endeavor including HyVee, Cash Wise, Foremost Brewing, Profinium, Prime Garage Door, and Molly MacIntosh among many others.
The Owatonna committee is also planning a raffle for anyone in the community to partake in with details of the event to be made public soon. Gillespie said any local realtor or lender office will be able to assist in purchasing tickets.