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‘Miracle’ field planned for Petaluma

Liam Richardson is an ebullient and engaging 12-year-old who has big league dreams of hitting little league home runs in Petaluma.

Richardson, who has Down syndrome, might soon have the opportunity bring his athletic aspirations to fruition on an adaptable baseball diamond built at Lucchesi Park by a local group that’s part of a nationally recognized Miracle League nonprofit.

Backed by a group of Petaluma parents, athletes and business leaders who formed the Miracle League North Bay, the $2 million project would include a custom-designed, rubberized turf field that will measure 200 feet from home plate to outfield. The diamond will accommodate wheelchairs and other devices while minimizing injuries, breaking down barriers posed by dirt infields and natural grass that can make it difficult for those with disabilities to play on traditional fields.

The proposal also includes wheelchair accessible dugouts, handicap accessible pathways to the field, an inclusive playing facility, restrooms, concessions stands and seating, according to city staff reports.

The project will be funded by the Miracle League North Bay nonprofit, which will also cover costs for routine maintenance of the field. Management of programs will be handled by the Boys and Girls Club of Marin and Petaluma. The field will be secured for permitted use, though it could be utilized for other activities when not occupied by the league’s programs.

Though there are 270 Miracle League organizations in five countries, there are no such facilities in Northern California, according to the group’s website. Since the closest field is in Modesto, the adaptable field in Petaluma has the potential to serve more than 50,000 special needs children and adults from across the Bay Area, according to Jennifer Richardson, Liam Richardson’s mother and one of the local group’s founding members.

“It’s bringing something that is so unique and something untapped to Petaluma — I’m dumbfounded that there’s not one in the Bay Area,” Richardson said.

For her son, the field would provide an opportunity to play one of his favorite sports with his peers, while also connecting him with a partner through a “buddy system,” which pairs able-bodied kids and adults with special needs players, Richardson said.

“The thing my son loves about junior high is that he goes to school with everyone else,” she said. “He doesn’t look at himself differently. People might look at him as different, but he doesn’t necessarily look at himself differently — these are his friends and being unable to play so many sports with these kids is really hard for him.”

The group behind the Miracle League North Bay has been working with the city since June 2015 to hammer out details for the site and proposal, and the plans last month earned a stamp of approval from the city’s Recreation, Music and Parks Commission. The project is expected to be on the agenda for the Dec. 19 city council meeting, according to Drew Halter, the city’s interim recreation supervisor.

The project site at the 30-acre Lucchesi Park was occupied by an art feature and play structure that was removed in 2008, Halter said. Though the project would require the relocation of two disc golf baskets, Halter said the space to the north of the community center is otherwise “underutilized.”

If approved, the Miracle League field will add to the three other diamonds used by the American Little League as well as a multi-use artificial turf field that’s utilized for soccer and lacrosse. Parking for the field will be in the north Community Center parking lot, and no adverse traffic or parking impacts are anticipated, Halter said.

City Councilwoman Kathy Miller, who also acts as the council liaison to the Recreation, Music and Parks Commission, highlighted the project as a way to expand recreation options for an under-served population. She said the field would also be an economic boon for the city, drawing players and families from surrounding communities.

“It’s a terrific thing for the community,” said Miller, a self-described parks and recreation advocate. “I think it’s wonderful and I think it’s the kind of project you want to get involved in – it’s a heartwarming project and from an economic standpoint, it’s good for the community.”

As plans for the project have developed, the concept has gained community support, with the Women’s Guild and the Petaluma Rotary each pledging $10,000.

Pending approval from the city council, the group plans to approach local families to support the project, and members this week met with the Giants about a potential funding partnership, Richardson said.

“I am very confident that we’ll be able to make the funding happen,” she said.

Ghilotti Construction has signed on as the team lead for the project and the current goal is to launch construction this spring, in time to open the field for the fall season in 2017, Richardson said.

The group plans to work with the American Little League and the Petaluma Rotary to establish the buddy system for players, Richardson said.

League president Todd Bugbee said working with the Miracle League will help build on the skills that Little League already promotes for its 300 local members, like a “spirit of all-inclusiveness,” discipline and sportsmanship.

“It’s just a real positive uplifting message and to partner with them in the buddy program is an even better step in helping build our kids in learning to help others in need and not discriminating … it’s exciting,” he said.

Richardson said she’s grateful for the community support, and hopes to successfully bring the project to Petaluma.

“Petaluma is a very embracing community,” she said. “It bring tears to my eyes to think my son is going to be able to play baseball.”