County will decide whether successful training facility can reopen
“I still get to jump, but it’s a shame for the kids,” said the 51-year-old Babits, who in February was forced to close the training facility in the cavernous 6,400-square-foot barn near his Pion Road home after an anonymous complaint – from a rival coach, he suspects – alerted county officials that he had been operating a recreational facility in an area zoned for residential use. The Board of Zoning Appeals is expected to decide April 18 whether Babits can resume classes and conduct camp at his “Vault High Facility” later this month as scheduled.
“I built this place just for me,” he said, gazing up at the ceiling 35 feet above the floor and toward the far wall 160 feet away, providing plenty of room for a good running start and championship-level jumps. “But then kids started coming in. One turned into two, and two turned into three.”
And pretty soon, a private facility turned into a full-time business – meaning its future is no longer solely in Babits’ hands.
But those hands have done pretty well – at least when they’re gripping a pole that has sent him soaring as high as 18.6 feet into the air. The former Michigan high school champion has sponsored the “Street Vault” during the annual Fort Wayne Newspapers Three Rivers Festival and is still among the best vaulters in his age group, having competed in the Olympics trials in 1984 and 1996. Along the way, he’s also trained 21 high school state champions and 27 students who have received college scholarships. The barn’s walls are lined with photos and newspaper clippings testifying to Babits’ prowess as an athlete and coach.
That’s all in limbo, though, while the facility – as Babits’ web site puts it – remains “closed for renovations.”
“For now, I’m unemployed,” he said.
If the neighbors’ opinions mean anything, Babits won’t be idle for long. Jay Henschen, who has lived nearby for 44 years said he “never had a problem” with the vaulting activities. “I hardly even know it’s there,” he said.
That’s because the training takes place indoors, Babits said, and is limited to 10 or fewer students at a time.
Department of Planning officials clearly want to keep it that way. If the BZA allows him to resume operations – and I suspect it will, and should – it’s likely to impose several conditions designed to minimize the facility’s impact on neighbors. According to a staff report, those conditions could include limits on the number of students and employees, hours of operation and lighting. The BZA must also grant a waiver because the barn was built slightly too close to the property line.
Having to worry about such mundane things is a change for Babits, whose enthusiasm for vaulting is fueled by the ability to “go up and fly through the air.”
Earlier this month, ironically, Babits and wife Brenda, who has been vaulting for five years, were featured in no less than the New York Times, which mentioned their business but not the struggle to save it.
“The feeling you get flying over the bar, nothing is better than that,” Brenda told the Times.
They and their students hope to have a similar feeling after the BZA meeting this month, and I wish them success. What better place for pole vaulters than a pole barn?