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Here’s what Riverside neighbors think of big plans for Kuntz stadium

Players from Central Indiana Women’s Soccer League play in a match May 21, 2024, at Kuntz Stadium on the near west side of Indianapolis. (Provided Photo/Peter Blanchard/Mirror Indy)

INDIANAPOLIS (MIRROR INDY) — When Jody Toth steps onto the field at Kuntz Memorial Soccer Stadium, her anxiety melts away.

Toth, president of the Central Indiana Women’s Soccer League, first found catharsis playing under the bright lights of the outdoor arena in the late 1980s.

“This was my mental health night,” she recalls. “I’d come out on that pitch, and all of that stress would go away.”

Toth fears that a plan by a group of local investors and rugby enthusiasts to transform the space into a rugby-focused facility would take away access from community members who have relied on the stadium for nearly four decades.

“It’s actually a jewel for the city,” Toth said. “It has a lot of history.”

The investment group, Riverside Sports Properties, is looking to lease the city-owned stadium for a project to make upgrades to the stadium. The group has pledged to maintain or expand access to community groups that want to use the facility.

“First and foremost, it’s a community resource,” Brian Williams, one of the four managing partners of Indy Rugby LLC, the entity that operates Riverside Sports Properties, told Mirror Indy.

Toth, though, is skeptical that the investment group will live up to its end of the deal, and she and other players fear that plans to replace the grass fields with turf could lead to more injuries. A 2018 study in the American Journal of Sports Medicine found that turf fields appeared to increase the likelihood of non-contact injuries by 20%.

People who live in the Riverside neighborhood near the stadium, meanwhile, have mixed views about the project. While some like the idea of upgrading the stadium — especially if schools, families and community groups can continue to use it — others wonder whether the area can handle the crowds.

The 5,000-seat stadium, which features two FIFA-regulated grass fields, was built in 1987 to host the Pan American Games, a global multi-sport competition held every four years before the Summer Olympic Games. In its heyday, it also entertained the U.S. Youth National Championships, state soccer championships and Olympic teams from the U.S. and around the world.

But the stadium has gone without any serious upgrades since it was erected. Its primary purpose today is providing an affordable space for schools and recreational sports leagues.

The facility would continue to be a community asset under a proposed lease agreement with Indy Rugby LLC. The 20-year lease, which is in final negotiations, would stipulate that half the activities at the facility must be for community use, said Phyllis Boyd, the city’s director of parks and recreation.

“We’re looking at this as an opportunity to have that site get improved and serve the community in ways that it hasn’t been able to for quite some time,” Boyd told members of the city’s Parks and Recreation Committee last week.

The committee voted unanimously May 14, to approve the lease agreement with the investment group. The measure now faces a final vote from the City-County Council, where it is expected to pass.

Under the terms of the lease agreement, Indy Rugby wouldn’t pay rent on the property for the first 10 years of the deal, in exchange for providing staffing, ongoing maintenance and repairs, utility expenses and facility improvements estimated at $12 million.

After the first 10 years of the lease, the city would begin collecting between 3-4% of the stadium’s gross revenue.

Rugby dreams

The four people behind Indy Rugby hope a revamped stadium would help Indianapolis land the Rugby Men’s World Cup in 2031 and the Women’s World Cup in 2033, Williams said.

About 2.4 million people attended the 2023 Rugby Men’s World Cup in France, or roughly three times the size of Indy’s population, the world’s third largest sporting event. About 150,000 attended the women’s tournament.

While the Rugby World Cup games would likely not be played at Kuntz given its size, the stadium could serve as a place for players to compete in exhibition matches and prepare for tournament games, a city official said.

Williams and his partners also see an opportunity to revitalize the aging stadium and surrounding neighborhood. 

“We started in 2019 with a rugby focus, but as we’ve talked with folks, we realized the opportunity was greater than just rugby for a facility that could serve as a real contributor to the vitality of the neighborhoods,” Williams told Mirror Indy.

Williams said the group is also hoping the upgrades will persuade USA Rugby, the national governing body for the sport, to relocate its headquarters from Colorado. More than 50 letters of support have been sent to the organization, with endorsements coming from Democratic Mayor Joe Hogsett, Republican U.S. Sens. Mike Braun and Todd Young and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who played for the Indiana University Men’s Rugby team.

“Given the number of national sports governing bodies in Indianapolis and the excitement that this facility will bring, USA Rugby would greatly benefit from relocating to Indianapolis,” Cuban wrote in an undated letter submitted to the city.

In a statement to Mirror Indy, a spokesperson for USA Rugby said the organization has had “soft discussions” with several municipalities, including Indianapolis, that have expressed interest in becoming the new home for USA Rugby.

Neighbors hope for revitalization

Barbara Smith has lived directly across from the stadium, for more than five decades. Her mother raised her and her nine siblings in a house on the corner of Koehne and 18th streets. 

Smith said the soccer complex, including the stadium, has always been used for sporting events. She remembers when the stadium hosted the soccer portion of the 1987 Pan Am Games. 

She’s not concerned about the traffic a new stadium could bring to her neighborhood, as her street is probably already at capacity whenever it hosts events.

“We’re used to the traffic being directed through here,” Smith said. “When something’s going on on 16th Street or (East Riverside Drive), 18th Street gets really bounded up. And then when 18th Street’s too full, they come down our street.”

Smith hopes that a new stadium could result in new sidewalks or street lights on Koehne Street.

“It’s dark as hell at night. You can’t see across the street because there’s no street lights,” she said. “A whole lot of things’ll change if they get a business over here. Somebody’s gonna protect their money, so I think it’ll really improve the neighborhood.”

Another resident on Koehne Street, Michelle Kidd, said she’s excited about the possibility of a new stadium. She’s lived there for 11 years, but wonders why such a potentially large venture would choose Kuntz stadium.

“This is my neighborhood, man. I love it. But my thing is — why would they put that there?”

Mirror Indy reporter Peter Blanchard covers local government. Reach him at 317-605-4836 or Follow him on X @peterlblanchard.

Mirror Indy reporter Enrique Saenz covers west Indianapolis. Contact him at 317-983-4203 or Follow him on X @heyEnriqueSaenz.