The Sports Center is perhaps best known for the trademark dinosaur that greets guests at the entrance. It is a 140-acre family entertainment center located at 6545 SW 10th Avenue in Topeka since 1972.
A Topeka family tradition, the company has undergone many changes throughout its 50-year history and recently changed hands.
Brothers Scott, Kurt, Brad and Brian Walker purchased the Sports Center from previous owners Stan and Sheryl Swanson nearly a year ago in May 2021.
“We four brothers always wanted to do something together,” said Kurt Walker. “There isn’t much to do out in Topeka so we wanted to create a more tropical fun park vibe.”
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Walker said that while Kansas City residents have many options close to home, Topecans are currently being forced to travel out of town if they want to enjoy a modernized golfing experience, and the Walkers would like to see that change.
Sports center extends offer
Renovation of the 2,700-square-foot clubhouse, which includes a snack bar, indoor seating areas and game room, has already begun, with plans to update the current arcade offering. The Walkers recently applied for and received a liquor license that will allow them to begin selling a variety of beer options, including Boulevard Brewing Company products, and are in the process of adding a slushy machine before the summer.
Sports center customers will find putter golf, gooney golf, nine batting cages, a driving range, and go-karts. The go-karts are currently only open on weekends and school holidays due to the labor intensive daily inspection and maintenance required to keep them running. All other activities are open during regular business hours. The opening times depend on the season and the weather.
The goal is inexpensive fun outside of the family
An affordable option for families in the area, the current price for go-karts or 18-hole putter golf is $9 per person. A small bucket of balls at the driving range is $5, medium and large buckets are $9 and $14, respectively. The sports center continues to offer birthday parties, as well as work, large group and school events to the community.
Walker said he and his brothers have added several water features around the park, with possible plans for a splash pad near the batting cages to help kids cool off in the hot summer months. He also said the batting cages recently received a much-needed upgrade.
“It’s a whole new system,” he said. “One of the new machines lets you hit baseballs or softballs and choose the speed.”
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The existing covered pavilion, which can accommodate large groups of people, will soon be complemented by wall-mounted televisions, allowing sporting events to be broadcast during business hours. There are also plans for additional restrooms on the west end of the property to make the facilities more accessible from the driving range, gazebo, go-karts and batting cages.
“It seemed like people forgot”
Walker said one of the reasons he and his brothers were drawn to the idea of owning a sports center was because all four played multiple sports growing up. Kurt and Brian played golf.
The sports center’s former golf course was closed 15 years ago as rising maintenance costs outstripped the income generated. Since then it has stood unused and overgrown.
“There hasn’t been a lot going on here for the past 15 years, so it seemed like people had forgotten about it,” Kurt said.
He and his brothers, along with their cousin Casey Travis, cleared the undergrowth and uncovered the old markings to restore the former golf course to function. Walker said part of the cleanup included correcting overflow issues with the pond, which sits on the plaza.
They came across one of the original signs from the time when the company was still called a sports center.
“We want to bring back the golf course with a different golfing experience. We want it to have a different vibe and a fun vibe,” he said.
“Famous Holes Around the World”
Part of this plan includes installing turf as well as offering night golf opportunities as the course already has outdoor lighting from existing poles. While the new course’s design is still in the planning stages, Walker said he and his brothers considered centering it around the theme of “Famous Holes Around the World.”
This would allow golfers in Topeka to play replicas of famous golf holes from around the world, including a replica of Augusta’s 12th hole, a 155-yard par 3 that is possibly the most famous hole in all of golf, or the Island Green. a par-3, 132-yard hole surrounded by water on three sides located at TPC Sawgrass in Florida.
PGA golfer Jim Colbert opened a website for the first time
Their vision also includes an elevated bar near the driving range where guests can enjoy drinks while hitting some golf balls. There has even been talk of adding a restaurant to the property at some point in the future.
2022 marks the 50th anniversary of the opening of the sports center as Jim Colbert’s Golf Center. Duane Dale has been a Facilities Manager since 1977 and remembers the company’s history almost from the beginning.
The house that stands on the property was once the original clubhouse, where first owner and PGA golfer Jim Colbert lived. Colbert operated the center for just over two years before selling it to Dean Rabe in 1976. At that point, it had been out of service for quite some time.
Rabe began essentially building from scratch and expanding on the existing facilities, including the addition of a small clubhouse. He restored the 9 hole par 3 golf course and hired Dale as his golf course superintendent.
Dale’s father, then a horticulture student at Kansas State University, knew Dean Rabe and got him the job. Dale was responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of the golf course and grounds, a position he has held for 45 years.
“I studied horticulture, so I enjoyed tending to the golf course,” said Dale. “Caring for golf greens requires a high level of skill.”
A putter golf course and a larger 30 x 30 square foot clubhouse were added in 1980. In 1981 the putter golf course was again expanded by 18 holes. The current clubhouse opened in August 1990, and Rabe sold the business three years later in 1993 to his daughter and son-in-law Stan and Sheryl Swanson. Dale said he’s seen many changes in his 45 years with the company.
“We had a golf course and then a Christmas tree farm for 25 years with 14,000 Christmas trees,” he said. “Dean tried to find a way to keep me busy during the winter, but he didn’t realize how much work it was to do in the summer as well. It was a lot of fun, but we didn’t make a lot of money from it.”
“It’s fun to work here”
The tree farm became a family tradition for many Topeka families, who would take the wagon to the back of the property where they could select a tree and cut it down, bag it, tow it, and load it onto their vehicle to take home for the season take .
During the summer, the sports center hosted a children’s junior golf program with up to four camps per summer at around 60 kids per session, something Walker said they hope to offer again at some point. The company also hosted physical education programs and local high school golf teams, as well as youth programs through Topeka Parks and Recreation.
“We’re up to the third generation,” said Dale. “People will come here and say, ‘I used to play here as a kid, and now I’m out here with my grandkids.'”
It’s also not uncommon for couples to tell Dale that they’re celebrating their wedding anniversary at the Sports Center because it was the location of their first date.
“I enjoy what I do. Every day is different. It’s never the same.”
Walker said the Sports Center hasn’t been plagued by the staffing shortages that many companies have faced in recent years, and he attributes it to being a good work environment.
“We usually have a pretty good group of people,” he said. “It’s fun to work here and everyone is happy. They come here to work and then their friends want to work here too.”
Walker said the sports center plans to hold events throughout the year to celebrate 50 years in business.
In addition to food truck performances and specials, event information can be found by calling the Sports Center at (785) 272-5522 and visiting their Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/Sports-Center-Family-Fun-Center -146340556791/ or on the Company’s website, https://sportscentertopeka.com/.
“We want this to be the place where you can bring your whole family together and be fun for kids and adults alike,” Walker said.