NEW BERLIN – Four years ago, as his plans began to take shape on paper, Aaron Kahle saw his dreams of an all-encompassing indoor sports complex become plausible.
Today, they’re tangible, ready for a crowd of curious guests wondering what’s inside and for a group of young athletes looking forward to a training center so complete they might think they were already pros.
The OAW Indoor Sports Complex, one of the key additions to New Berlin’s growing prowess in personal fitness, has opened its doors, with a grand opening event Friday making sure everyone has a chance to consider what’s at hand.
Also known by its pre-sponsor name Ethic sports complex, the 153,000-square-foot facility along Racine Avenue and National Avenue features enclosed sports fields and four indoor basketball courts, as well as a fitness center and specialized performance training programs.
“I’m excited to be done, but super-excited for the chance to watch youth, adults and everybody enjoy this facility,” Kahle said two days before the sports complex’s public introduction.
The city of New Berlin appreciates Kahle’s vision, shared by his partner Joe Mallinger, as well as his choice of where to build a complex within its borders.
“This is kind of a dream of his, to be able to do something like this,” New Berlin Mayor Dave Ament said in a previous interview. “That parcel is really perfect for this.”
What it’s all about
Built on the site of the former Prospect Hill School, which stood vacant for 13 years, the complex at 5330 S. Racine Ave. carries an educational component, even beyond sports, primarily serving young athletes but not exclusively.
Music is part of the mix, as evidenced by the grand piano tucked into a music room on the second level of the facility overlooking the football field. The anchor tenant is called Mozart’s Gym, a music academy making use of the space.
Another room is set aside for a dance program. Both are elements Kahle had included in his initial proposal to the city of New Berlin to cement the facility’s broad role in the community.
Kahle, who has a daughter involved in such nonathletic pursuits, said that was important to him and something he wanted to include as part of the facility’s mission. “We wanted to incorporate everything that a family needs in a facility, including art, dance and music — and sports as well.”
Not surprisingly, the rest of the facility focuses on the latter.
On the main floor, FieldTurf, a well-known artificial playing surface, dominates the space. It’s used for a full-sized football/soccer field doubling as a baseball training field on one end, a football training field with an adjacent athletic training facility and a softball training field.
Keri Bash, director of marketing operations for Ethic Indoor/OAW Indoor Sports Complex, said the facility isn’t merely about space for athletes. An important component is expert training. Matt Gifford will serve as the director of sports performance.
“He and his staff are highly sought out in our area,” Bash said as she led an impromptu tour and pointed out the sports performance training center’s features. “Pretty impressive. We have all the turf here, and basically anything you can dream of we have, all brand new.”
The lower level also includes a smaller adult fitness center, which will be available under terms of a gym-like membership arrangement, and a cafeteria area and kitchen, which includes a full menu and beer and wine. These amenities are intended for the general public, she said.
The upper level, which overlooks all the fields, sports another amenity uncommon in most facilities: four full-size basketball courts. Bash said the court surfaces, while mimicking a traditional wood surface, are actually padded underneath, creating a court that reduces stress on athlete’s joints but doesn’t change the nature of the competitive play.
The facility also includes a 3,500-square-foot physical therapy clinic run by its sponsor, Orthopaedic Associates of Wisconsin. OAW signed a 10-year sponsorship deal in February. It will be separately managed and staffed by OAW and includes its own entry door on one front corner of the building.
Overall, the sports complex, which required extensive planning and revisions over time to put so much athletic activities in a climate-controlled environment, can’t help but impress people, Bash said.
“It’s a behemoth of a facility that’s very unprecedented for Wisconsin,” she said. “Which is very surprising, because we are in Wisconsin. People know that the snow flies every year.”
From the beginning, Kahle has promoted the facility as a place for competition, with an emphasis on youth training. But the field space inside also lent itself to competitive adults performing in leagues that are largely recreational.
The OAW complex’s website specifies plans to incorporate adult leagues into its schedule, including slow-pitch softball, golf, basketball and pickleball leagues.
Registration has already begun for the men’s basketball league, which Bash said includes a 5 a.m. competition for early risers. Scheduling for other leagues is still evolving as the facility gains a foothold in the region.
Athletes with more serious aspirations, especially for high school and college sports, will delve more deeply into the complex’s programs.
“(The staff) does a lot of endurance and a lot of strength and upper body (training), very regimented programs depending on who (Gifford) is working with,” Bash said.
That spills over onto the fields.
Under Ethic Sports Academy (listed as ESA under links on the website) is a separate business unit under the roof, orchestrating teams, tournaments and more. The programs includes softball training and lessons, making use of the training field with 18 batting cages that can be lowered onto the field.
“Field One is specifically designed for our softball program,” Bash said. “Like the how the Brewers play at Am Fam Field, Ethic Sports Academy is our specific softball program that we are running here.”
The program is primarily for women’s fast-pitch softball, but the field is also used for others, including a men’s league which can use a flight-restrictive ball to compensate for the relatively close distance of the home run “fences” — actually clear panels with netting above them to contain the action.
Fields Two and Three together make up a full football field, side to side and end to end, but can be used separately, again for leagues and training for soccer, lacrosse, field hockey and other sports. As many as six women’s soccer games can take place at once here.
Demand has already run high, according to Bash. “It has kind of been a scheduling challenge for us to fit everyone in,” she said, adding that Field One can also serve non-softball sports as well.
Kahle, the more vocal of the two partners, said the facility fulfills his intended purpose after intensive planning.
“It’s funny because when I was building my house, as soon as we moved in my wife wanted to change walls,” he said. “When it comes to this building, we revised the floor plan probably 40 to 50 times, which my architects weren’t too excited about, but honestly walking through it now, there’s nothing that I would change.”
Now that the facility is built, Kahle said he will remain involved with some operational elements, but he will leave most of the business and organizational functions to staff, which was hired with his high ideals in mind.
“I am one of those owners that just wants to come here and play with my kids and not necessarily be known as the owner,” he said.
Unveiling and celebration
The process of completing the facility has faced a few obstacles, but unexpectedly in terms of supplies and equipment, not in the considerable construction itself.
Workers were busy in the kitchen, the adult gym and the physical therapy center on Wednesday putting together various pieces of equipment delayed by international shipping problems plaguing retailers, manufacturers and all corners of American society in recent weeks.
“It has been very stressful for not only employees but the ownership group, who is literally putting things together,” Bash said. “Joe (Mallinger) is part of our ownership group, and he is putting together cash registers. … He’s a good sport, and we value that.”
In fact, there’s so much equipment, much of which was still being unboxed and assembled less than 48 hours before the facility opened, that that aspect alone has been a sizable task in the year-long construction process.
“It literally took us weeks to take things out of boxes and to build it out,” Bash said.
By opening day, the dusty floors were expected to be cleaned and polished for an open house and series of activities designed to help get the public initiated with the facility.
In addition to the day-long open house, live scrimmages on the fields and courts, — including pickleball, lacrosse and softball — were planned.
Another highlight was a visit by Michele Smith, a two-time Olympics gold medalist with the U.S. softball team. She will sign autographs and lead a clinic with Ethic Sports Academy.
Bash said the opening day events could draw thousands. The facility has arranged for overflow parking at the Fox River Christian Church Muskego Campus, where a shuttle was expected to be available to the facility.