The Chaska Athletic Park was 6 feet underwater last April, with the Minnesota River lapping against the top of its baseball dugouts and inching up the pine planks of the historic grandstand bleachers.

The field and community gathering spot, built by volunteers in 1950, is one of the pre-eminent small town baseball parks in Minnesota.

But its picturesque location nestled against a hill and with the river just beyond a stand of trees ringing the outfield fence also means that it's prone to flooding. This year's high water didn't recede for a month, and teams that use the field had to practice and play elsewhere.

"The athletic park is the only piece of land in Chaska that is unprotected by the city's flood control levee," said City Administrator Matt Podhradsky.

Now, with the flooding happening more frequently and the ensuing cleanup costs rising, the Carver County city is planning to build a berm around the park to prevent most flooding.

Chaska manages the field as a city park, and it costs about $30,000 to clean, repair and reopen each time it floods, said Podhradsky. During the 1990s, the field flooded about once every four years, but in the past 18 months it has flooded three times.

The city administrator estimates the berm could cost between $100,000 and $250,000, depending on whether Chaska receives clay fill from other developments that might be built elsewhere in the city during the next year or so.

"Over time, it's cheaper for us to invest in something like this instead of continuing to have to rebuild what gets destroyed by floods," he said.

The City Council will take up the issue next month.

'Hallowed ground'

Sitting in the shade of the huge grandstand roof last week, Dale Welter gazed at the field, with its well-manicured green turf looking healthier than ever after a full season of play.

"You can't duplicate this," he said, shaking his head. "It's just so nice, the setting and everything."

Welter coached the high school team that uses the field, the Chaska Hawks, for nearly 30 years until he retired in 2008. He calls it "hallowed ground" and volunteers with others to help city workers keep the park in top shape, touching up the green grandstand with fresh paint and keeping the area free of litter.

Welter knows the park intimately, with its wood and cinderblock grandstand that seats about 850, the chickenwire screening that protects fans from foul balls, and the original standards that bathe the field in light during dozens of evening games.

"If you're driving by on a summer night, and you saw the lights on and those little images running around the field, and all those cars and people in the stands, I mean it's just a piece of Americana," said Bob Roepke, former Chaska mayor and board member of the Chaska Cubs, an amateur town team that also uses the field.

For Roepke and others, the park is a core community gathering place. It's where the city hosts a July 4th celebration and other special events, and it has been a magnet for American Legion teams, the Minnesota State Amateur Baseball Tournament and the Class A State High School Baseball Tournament.

However, Roepke said the athletic park is more than just a popular venue for games. It's where people find common ground, he said, whether they are young kids running the bases or elected officials working in the concession stand.

Referring to the park, Roepke said: "It's important today because it was important yesterday. It's a source of community pride."

What's ahead

The City Council will discuss next month whether to grant itself a conditional use permit to move forward with the project.

Another piece of the puzzle is how the berm, if built, might affect a creek diversion -- an elevated concrete channel -- that runs along one side of the athletic field. The city will need to prove that a berm will not weaken or change the channel, said Dana Werner, the completed projects inspector for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that built the diversion. Werner said he doesn't expected any "show-stopper" based upon informal discussions with the city, but said his agency needs to review the project if any part of the berm is built against Corps structures.

Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388