The view off Interstate 5 just south of Medford has shifted dramatically over the last few months.

The view off Interstate 5 just south of Medford has shifted dramatically over the last few months.

What were once empty fields have transformed into a blossoming community of softball and baseball diamonds just waiting for the first call of "Play ball!"

That will come on the first weekend of May, said Medford Parks and Recreation Director Brian Sjothun, when approximately 20 youth tournaments have been tentatively scheduled along with city league softball at U.S. Cellular Community Park, a new baseball and softball complex.

"The biggest thing," Sjothun said during a tour of the facility on Friday, "was to get a presence on I-5 as soon as possible. What we're doing here is being watched by the rest of the state. It's pretty exciting."

The completion of five softball and youth baseball fields is Phase 2 of a four-phase process that will transform 132 acres into a $30-million sports park. The entire project, which will feature 15 sports fields, the Jefferson Nature Center, playgrounds and trails, could be completed within three years.

The softball and baseball complex has FieldTurf, a synthetic, grass-like surface that will save an estimated $45,000 per year on field maintenance, Sjothun said.

Similar to the surface at Spiegelberg Stadium, the soft, spongy FieldTurf covers the outfield and infield of each field. The outfield is a grassy green, while the infield — shaved an eighth of an inch shorter than the outfield turf — is brown.

The project, which first broke ground in September, is being completed by LTM.

Of the 15 fields, 14 will feature the all-weather, artificial surface. Only Harry & David Field will be natural grass. Seven of the fields will be for softball, three of the full-sized fields will be for baseball and the other five fields will be multi-sport.

"We had to spend almost as much to put the FieldTurf in as you would laying sod or hydro seed for natural grass," said Sjothun, who added the only maintenance would be vacuuming or brushing the turf after some games. "But the savings in the long run is pretty significant. You're looking at $50,000 for maintenance if you have natural grass. It's about $5,000 a year for FieldTurf."

The softball-baseball complex is sandwiched between Harry & David Field and I-5. Paving for the parking lots and the entrance from Highway 99 to the Rotary Bridge should be finished some time in May.

The new facility will be equipped with lights, dugouts, restrooms, concession stands, a small set of portable bleachers for each field, wireless scoreboards and a playground in the center of the complex. Portable pitching mounds will be available to shuttle on and off the fields as necessary.

Trees will also line the perimeter of the fields at some point to provide shade for spectators. In the meantime, Sjothun is looking at purchasing shade structures to keep the sun off fans.

One of the five fields is designated the championship field. Its dimensions are 315 feet to the fence in the outfield — 15 feet longer than the other four fields.

The estimated cost for Phase 2 is $6.8 million.

"We researched the heck out of this thing," said Sjothun. "I feel like we went top shelf with everything we've done. We wanted to get everything right the first time."

Other fields in the community, such as Jackson, Fagone and Howard, may still be used for some city league softball games, said adult sports league coordinator Rich Rosenthal.

Besides softball and youth baseball tournaments and city league play, the new complex could also host Rogue Valley Cup soccer games for the younger age brackets over the Memorial Day weekend, said Sjothun.

"We could even get the Medford Cruise to come here," added Sjothun. "How cool would that be to drive down I-5 and see a bunch of older cars lined up down here."

The fields will be open from 8 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. unless closed for maintenance or set-up. The complex is open to the public, Sjothun said, and prices to reserve field use are listed on the Web site, www.playmedford.com.

U.S. Cellular bought rights to have its name associated with the sports park last May. The contract will run for six years

The Community Field project began several years ago when the Chamber of Medford/Jackson County campaigned for an increase in the transient lodging tax on local hotels and motels. The funds produced from the increase allowed the purchase of the 132 acres of park land for $4.2 million in 2003.

Park fees were later increased as well, and the city sold $18.9 million in revenue bonds to fund the construction of the park and a gymnasium at the Santo Community Center.

"I was really amazed by the lack of facilities in the area," said Sjothun. "We have 2,700 acres of park land. The only thing holding us back is a shortage of facilities."

"But let's get the playing facility done right now," Sjothun added. "The rest can come later."

Sjothun expects the new facility will be a help to the local economy as well as a top-notch facility to house tournaments and city league play.

"We get so many people moving here from California and Arizona, and they come here asking where the park is," said Sjothun. "Well, the first weekend in May we'll open this up and have a big blowout."

Phase 3 — the construction of five multi-sport fields and a baseball field — will be up for bid at the end of this month. Completion of that project is estimated for May or June of 2009.

Reach reporter Kevin Goff at 776-4483, or e-mail kgoff@mailtribune.com