10-acre youth sports complex, community center opens on West Side: ‘It’ll be valuable to have kids from all different neighborhoods under one roof’

The new North Austin Center includes Chicago’s largest turf field, 15 fields and courts for year-round camps, leagues and tournaments, plus an eSports lab — all designed to close the opportunity gap in youth sports.

SHARE 10-acre youth sports complex, community center opens on West Side: ‘It’ll be valuable to have kids from all different neighborhoods under one roof’
A ceremonial ribbon stretches the length of the indoor turf field at the new North Austin Center, a community center and sports complex from the Chicago Fire Foundation and others in the West Side neighborhood that opened Thursday.

A ceremonial ribbon stretches the length of the indoor turf field at the new North Austin Center, a community center and sports complex from the Chicago Fire Foundation and others in the West Side neighborhood that opened Thursday.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Uriah and Alanah Gomez explored a new sports complex on the West Side on Thursday. And taking in its pristine hardwood basketball court, cavernous indoor turf field and other facilities, the siblings nodded in agreement that it was something they could get used to.

“It’s so modern. It’s going to be an amazing program for kids in the neighborhood,” said Priscilla Gomez, their mother. “The kids here didn’t have anything prior to this building being built.”

Gomez said the family has been attending church in the area since before Alanah, 18, was born, and that for all that time, the 10-acre plot in the Austin neighborhood where the new complex stands was vacant.

The site at the intersection of Moffat Street and Laramie Avenue was home to a paint factory decades ago but had become a scar that they could see from Grace and Peace Church, immediately adjacent to the site.

Now, it’s the opposite — the North Austin Center includes 152,333 square feet of indoor space, outdoor turf fields, classrooms, a professional-size indoor turf field, an Esports lab and a baseball academy from one of Chicago’s hometown heroes.

Uriah, Priscilla and Alanah Gomez attend the opening of the North Austin Center, a community center and sports complex from the Chicago Fire Foundation and others in the West Side neighborhood that opened Thursday.

Uriah, Priscilla and Alanah Gomez attend the opening of the North Austin Center, a community center and sports complex from the Chicago Fire Foundation and others in the West Side neighborhood that opened Thursday.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

The family had come from their home near Garfield Park to explore it during an opening ceremony that welcomed the public. After following the progress of construction, Priscilla Gomez was curious.

“I wanted to see it for myself,” she said. “Just to see where it is that my kids …”

... “are gonna be putting all their time,” said Alanah Gomez, finishing her mother’s sentence.

The aim behind the massive endeavor is to improve access to high-quality sports training for youth. To that end, kids from the neighborhood and Chicago will be able to sign up for free to play in leagues at the facility, which will also be a host for travel teams and whoever else wants to join.

The Chicago Fire Foundation, which helped fund the building, will support 20 hours of free community programming every week, and Intentional Sports — one of three nonprofits based that will use the facility — will reserve the fields exclusively for free community programs on weeknights from 3 to 7 p.m.

Community nonprofits By the Hand Club for Kids and Grace and Peace Revive Center will provide programming for youth at the classrooms and community spaces at the complex, which will also be home to Jason Heyward’s Baseball Academy.

The exterior of the North Austin Center, a community center and sports complex from the Chicago Fire Foundation and others in the West Side neighborhood that opened Thursday.

The exterior of the North Austin Center, a community center and sports complex from the Chicago Fire Foundation and others in the West Side neighborhood that opened Thursday.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

The former Chicago Cub was on hand Thursday to celebrate the grand opening with officials from the nonprofits, former Chicago Bear Sam Acho and elected officials Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) and Mayor Lori Lightfoot, as well as hundreds of other community members.

“Spreadsheets will tell you that a place like this doesn’t make sense,” said Andy McDermott, president of Intentional Sports. “Spreadsheets will make 10 acres in the middle of four communities sit vacant for 40 years and turn youth sports into a massive industry, pulling them farther and farther away from communities that need them most.”

“Here’s what spreadsheets can’t tell you. It can’t measure the intangible power of great humans who are pulled together to do something really, really hard,” he said.

Developers broke ground on the $35 million site in the summer of 2021, building it with funding from the Chicago Fire Foundation, Heyward and $3.5 million from the state. Sports programming will begin later this month. To find out more about the programs, visit www.intentionalsports.org.

Following remarks from McDermott, Mitts and Lightfoot in an auditorium, the crowd proceeded to the massive indoor turf field, where they cut a ribbon that spanned the length of it, some kids gave a ceremonial first kick of soccer ball and Heyward threw out a ceremonial first pitch.

Tre Demps, a former basketball player at Northwestern and director of the basketball programming at the complex, didn’t get to shoot a ceremonial 3-pointer, but the former shooting guard is already turning his focus to the programs ahead.

“The meat and potatoes of why we’re here is to provide equal opportunity in sports programming to youth in the neighborhood,” he said.

Free access to elite-level programs will make a big difference for younger players, he imagined, but more than that, he’s looking forward to the young athletes getting to spend years playing together.

“The biggest thing would be building relationships. These kids will be coming in as second-graders and the goal is to have them all the way through high school, playing on the same team together,” he said. “It’ll be valuable to have kids from all different neighborhoods under one roof.”

Michael Loria is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South Side and West Side.

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