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11 Oct 2012

Ex-Big Leaguer Shows Big Heart At Big House

Ex-Big Leaguer Shows Big Heart At Big House

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A former Major League Baseball outfielder, three time All-Star, and member of the World Series champion 1984 Detroit Tigers believes a 162,000-square-foot Big House Sports Complex in Tavares will be a home run for Lake County. 

"This has always been a dream of mine," Chet Lemon said Tuesday, while joined by his wife, Gigi, while giving some friends, including future MLB Hall of Famer Gary Sheffield, a behind-the-scenes tour of the $6-plus million, 3-story facility that is in the home stretch of construction. 

The Big House is the house the Lemons have built and will operate with kids in mind. 

"I can't wait see thousands of kids running through the building," Gigi said. The Big House will have 16 volleyball courts; nine basketball courts; a 1/4 mile indoor running track; 14 outdoor beach volleyball courts; 12 batting cages; a major league infield; training and weightlifting areas; a 100-seat theater; a teaching kitchen; health and wellness center; game room; pro shop; daycare; classrooms; offices and meeting rooms. 

"Our goal right now is that it will be around Thanksgiving that we are running our first event," said Chet, who projects the facility to provide an economic boost of 15 permanent jobs and 80 part-time positions. 

Located at 1544 Lane Park Cutoff, across the street from Tavares Middle School, the facility will target regional events during school months that require weekend play. During the summer months, the Big House will be home to national tournaments and events, which require longer stays. In addition to a rigorous amateur athletic focus, the sports complex will be where professional athletes can work on their skills during the off-season. 

The first phase of the construction project was projected to cost $6 million, yet Chet admits the overall tally will be much higher. 

"It will probably super exceed the first phase, and it has never been for us about the money," he said. "We used a lot of our life savings to make it happen and we believe in this dream that we're putting together. We believe that we are going to make a lot of people happy." 

Gigi envisions Big House being a place where youths can also further their studies, take classes and receive tutoring. 

Her husband is a district sports director for the Amateur Athletic Union, and a former baseball coach at Eustis High School. In 2003, he coached the Eustis High Panthers to the State Championship, and together the Lemons organize events for 42 different sports with the AAU. 

"I'm so excited for what this is going to do for the community," said Chet. "We have traveled all over the world, so we've seen a lot of unique things and what we tried to do was to take the best of everything and brought it here to Lake County." 

Gigi recalled she and her husband first talked about building the Big House more than 15 years ago. 

"We were really searching to find the right location," she said. "And now this is pretty exciting that we're getting ready to move things in by the end of the month." 

The Big House's exterior sign is expected to be erected today. The Lemons also are excited about the state-of-the-art amenities that will be done later this week on the 16 volleyball courts and nine basketball courts. 

"In 90 seconds, we will be able to change over from basketball to volleyball with a push of a button," said Chet, who also showed the third floor that will house the Major League infield. 

"We'll have 12 batting cages and we're going to have six mounds over there," he said. "This is where an 8-year-old will be able to play baseball in here. And that's what drives me, to think we can have 2,000 to 3,000 kids in the building just playing sports. They can be playing baseball, volleyball, basketball, and we'll have a game room and we'll have educational things going on. We have a lot of good things." 

The Lemons credit Tavares city leaders for helping them achieve their dream for Big House. The city provided business assistance in planning, a waiver of impact fees and a postponement of building permit fees, enabling the project to proceed at a substantially lower cost. 

"All the folks of Lake County, especially in Tavares, they have been absolutely wonderful and (city manager) John Drury, I can't say enough about John," Chet said. "He has been absolutely off the charts in trying to work with us and pointing us in the right direction. Scott Blankenship and the folks with the economic development have been great; they've been absolutely awesome." 

 The Lemons also praised the Lake County commissioners. 

"All the people that we've met, they have made us the most excited about this," Chet said. 

"This is going to be a showcase," Gigi said. "And hopefully Lake County will like it, too."

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