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At The Frank, Accessibility Obstacles Going, Going Gone

SMILES helps city ID issues that gave baseball park a bad rep By Mark Fischenich
July 15, 2018

MANKATO John Aaker isn’t a huge baseball fan, but when he and his family moved into a house less than two blocks from Mankato’s premier baseball park he figured he would hit a few games. After all, the ball field was getting a well-publicized makeover with artificial turf, new scoreboards, more varied concessions, additional seating options and better bathrooms.

When Aaker mentioned his plans to others with mobility challenges, they reacted with surprise: “‘Have you been there?'”

The 57-year-old Franklin Rogers Park, the home stadium of the Mankato MoonDogs, had a well-established reputation among people with disabilities for what it lacked a spirit of accessibility.

There were a few spots for wheelchairs, but they weren’t set up so that Aaker or anyone else with a chair could sit immediately beside able-bodied family members or friends. The bathrooms didn’t meet Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines. There was no access to the Dog Pound the raised party deck typically reserved by local businesses as an outing for employees.

A ball park of ill repute

City leaders, in planning and financing improvements to The Frank, targeted a trio of areas where the ball park had a particularly bad reputation. The field, considered to have the worst playing surface in the Northwoods League, was replaced with artificial turf. Basic infrastructure dugouts, locker rooms, concessions stands was replaced, including the bathrooms.

“The restrooms are nasty,” Council member Trudy Kunkel said a year ago when the City Council approved the renovation.

But accessibility was the first reason Kunkel offered in explaining why she was supporting the project, and some of the most glaring issues were fixed when nearly $4 million in upgrades were made to The Frank last fall and this spring.

The bathrooms now meet ADA standards. New premium seating above the first base dugout has an ADA-compliant ramp leading to it. The first tier of the new Dog Pound can be reached on wheels.

And when the renovated stadium was complete, city officials reached out to SMILES Center for Independent Living for advice on anything they might have missed. Vickie Apel, community development director for SMILES, was pleased to be asked and lined up Aaker to do an accessibility inspection of the ball park.

“It was a wonderful experience, and we’ve just had a great time working with the city,” Apel said. “They’re open to understanding that being ADA-compliant doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s accessible.”

Aaker drove that point home during a tour of the park with Public Works Director Jeff Johnson, Deputy Public Works Director Brad Swanson and officials from the MoonDogs the collegiate summer league team that’s the stadium’s top draw.

“It gives us another perspective we have not seen before,” Swanson said of Aaker’s assistance.

An accessibility audit

Using a wheelchair, Aaker was able to offer the outlook of someone who can’t step over obstacles, of someone who views a baseball game with a lower eye-level than an average adult, of someone who’s looking for a fan experience that accommodates him while also leaving a place adjacent to him for his able-bodied wife and young daughter.

Aaker, though, wanted to represent viewpoints beyond his own. He inspected the facility while putting himself in the shoes of an elderly person, of someone with vision problems, even of a person who enjoys more than a couple of beers with a ballgame.

“I kind of wanted to look at it from the perspective of wanting to help everybody,” he said.

And he saw plenty. The bathroom door took a lot a strength to open. (The city has since adjusted the pressure on the door-closer mechanism.) There was no diaper table for parents of toddlers. (Changing stations have been installed). The high-top tables in the premium seats above the first base line and the picnic tables in the Dog Pound weren’t usable for people in wheelchairs. (Two tables in the premium seating area and four in the Dog Pound have been made ADA-compliant.)

The edges of the concrete risers in the Dog Pound didn’t have bright paint or tape to warn people with reduced vision that a big step was coming. Aaker emphasized that the tape doesn’t have to be aesthetically jarring, it could be done in team colors as long as it’s bright and marks the edge of the step. (The step markers have been added in MoonDogs’ orange with the team logo included.)

In that instance, Aaker was thinking about people whose vision might be temporarily impaired by the beverages they were consuming on the party deck.

“Not even looking at disabilities, you’re serving alcohol and it would be very easy for somebody to walk off the edge,” he said.

Aaker’s inspection was not only thorough, it was practical, according to Swanson.

“It was all very reasonable and just makes the facility function that much better,” he said.

Equal but not separate

Aaker also made the point that folks with disabilities can’t just be offered one or two spots to sit in the entire ball park even if they’re premium locations.

“Because that would be segregating us as a community of people with disabilities. That’s against federal law. There should be no reason to segregate and alienate people, especially at an event that’s supposed to be about community and fun and an activity for all.”

Plus, there’s a practical reason that people with disabilities should have the option of sitting in the bleachers. If they’re attending games with family or friends, the group might be able to afford only cheaper general-admission tickets. (A new accessible set of bleachers was installed Thursday down the left field line, joining one that’s not usable by people with disabilities.)

Ideally, Aaker said, SMILES would have been invited to give The Frank the once-over before it underwent its major renovation because some of the improvements could have been done more efficiently during the construction phase.

“It was a little shocking to us that they would (ask for an audit) at the end,” he said. “… It would’ve been easier in the beginning.”

That criticism aside, he praised the leaders of the Public Works Department for their willingness to seek solutions to the problems he identified.

“The city people seemed to be wanting to make changes and see what they could do,” Aaker said. “… I’m very happy it’s being noticed by city leaders, even if it’s a little after-the-fact.”

Broadening the fan base

For Aaker and for others at SMILES, making places like The Frank welcoming to people with mobility issues shouldn’t be looked at as an act of kindness. Instead it’s a just and necessary adaptation, especially for a population that’s growing older with the aging of the baby boom generation. And it’s just good business sense for organizations like the MoonDogs.

During the tour, one of the team officials was asked what percentage of the MoonDogs’ fan base is disabled. He said most games, there are three people in wheelchairs.

Aaker was bothered by the question and the answer for a couple of reasons. First, three might be the number of fans who love baseball enough to come to the stadium regardless of obstacles. An unknown number of others might be added to the fan base if the stadium didn’t have a reputation as one where the navigation challenges outweigh the fun.

Second, the potential additions to the crowd are not just those with lifelong disabilities.

“Anybody can have a broken leg and end up in a chair,” he said. “Anybody can have a stroke.”

Finally, a family outing to an accessible location tends to be a larger family outing than one to an obstacle-filled place.

“Then people bring Grandma,” Aaker said of an excursion to an event that’s welcoming to people who have trouble getting around. “If it’s not really difficult to bring Grandma, then you bring Grandma.”

The bottom line, according to Aaker, is that the improvements at the ball park will benefit many more people than the three regulars in wheelchairs.

Which is why the city sought SMILES’ help and why the city was eager to implement the suggestions, Swanson said.

“With the recent improvements that were done there, I think everybody’s going to feel it’s accessible and inclusive,” he said. “And that’s what we were striving for.”

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