Pictured are John White and Ben Zhao, both of Clarence, who were two of many youngsters who came to Darien Lake Theme Park yesterday to get free tickets.
Why do they get such special treatment? Well, the short answer is that they could be helping bring a fortune into Genesee County.
John and Ben are two of almost 1,600 kids, ages 12 to 18, who are competing in the Darien Lake Baseball Tournament, which starts today and involves youth from all over the Northeast and part of Canada.
According to Kelly Rapone, who works for the Genesee County Chamber of Commerce, there are a total of 106 teams, with 15 kids on each team. Kids from outside of Genesee County will, of course, be accompanied by their families.
This is likely to be a major boon not only for Darien Lake Theme Park -- which is sponsoring the tournament -- but also for the county in general. In addition to Darien Lake tickets for the kids, all visiting families receive welcome packets with visitors' and dining guides.
But what exactly is this tournament, and how did it come about?
According to Rapone, this is a "public-private venture to grow our economy through sports."
It all started a couple years ago with a conversation between Chris Suozzi of Genesee County Economic Development Center (GCEDC), Neil Turvey of A-Turf (a Cheektowaga-based company that specializes in synthetic grass surfacing for sports fields), and former Senator Mary Lou Rath. They met to discuss possible opportunities for Genesee County.
"There are a lot of synergies right here (in Genesee County)," Suozzi said. "Our location is real prime -- right on the New York State Thruway, between Buffalo and Rochester."
Suozzi and Turvey then got involved with Tom Lichtenthal, the Town of Batavia engineer, and Craig Yunker, who owns the Batavia Turf Farm on Bank Street Road.
Up until now, the Turf Farm has mainly been used for youth soccer games. Turvey would like to develop a baseball training center there, as well as space for baseball and softball games next to the soccer field.
Turvey, of Lockport, said this "is just phase one."
"We hope to eventually have 11 fields for baseball and softball."
Before taking on the ambitious task of "taking baseball (in Genesee County) to the next level," as Suozzi put it, he and Turvey wanted to have a baseball tournament here to see if it would be successful.
Suozzi said this idea came from an observation of how well local soccer teams have done with their tournaments.
With this in mind, and having connections with Darien Lake, he set up a meeting between himself, the theme park's general manager and Turvey. It was agreed that Darien Lake would sponsor the tournament.
"Our hope is that this will be economically impactful," Suozzi said. "When people and families come in, it brings sales tax dollars to our community. That's something people don't realize -- events like this are a real draw for that."
"We're expecting to see somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,000 people this weekend," Turvey said, "and around 7,500 people total."
The teams are divided into three groups: 10- to 12-year-olds, 13- to 15-year-olds and 16- to 18-year-olds. The 10- to 12-year-olds are playing today and tomorrow at Pembroke High School, at 8750 Alleghany Road in Corfu, and at the Pembroke town park, which is right behind the high school.
Next weekend (June 11-12), the 13- to 15-year-olds will play at three Batavia sites -- Batavia High School at 260 State St., John Kennedy Elementary School at 166 Vine St., and GCC at 1 College Road -- and Barrie Park, just outside of Albion.
Finally, the 16- to 18-year-olds will play Saturday, June 18, and Sunday, June 19 at these same four locations and at Pembroke High School.
Four games are played at each location every day of the tournament. Start times for each game are 9 a.m., noon, 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. They are free and open to the public, and food is available.
As difficult and time-consuming as it has been to coordinate this whole thing, Turvey is grateful for the amount of support the tournament has gotten from the Genesee County community.
"Everybody's been fantastic," he said. "The government agencies, the hotels, the chamber...the schools have also been very supportive."
If you have any questions or would like more information, call Turvey at (716) 462-8155. I spoke with him a minute ago, and he said that today's games are still on; they're just waiting for the weather to clear up a bit.
A rather "impressive" wooden bear guards the entrance to the Darien Lake lodge (right near where the kids came to pick up their tickets). Here he is a bit more close up.