Corning sports facility fights through shutdown, guidelines: How it's navigating pandemic
Donna and Rocky Ayers tried to adept to online sales and virtual training, but those ideas couldn't replace their face-to-face sports training.
In early March of 2020, the Sandlot Sports Academy was preparing for its busiest month of the year, when many local athletes come to hone their skills in preparation for the upcoming baseball and softball seasons.
The Sandlot serves athletes and teams at its 16,000-square-foot East Corning location, complete with indoor batting cages, pitching machines, pitching mounds, year-round camps and clinics and professional instruction.
The business also sells baseball and softball equipment in the attached retail shop.
In light of the coronavirus pandemic that had just begun to explode in the New York City area, the Sandlot opened by appointment only, bracing for the impact of a potential shutdown if the virus continued to spread.
On March 22, Sandlot was forced to close its doors by order of Gov. Andrew Cuomo as part of general COVID-19 public health restrictions — in a month in which it had expected triple the regular business.
“That hurt,” said Donna Ayers, who co-owns the Sandlot with her husband, Rocky. “Like other small businesses, you don’t have any income coming in, but you still have bills, mortgages and loans to worry about.”
Donna and Rocky attempted to keep the business going and tried to adapt to online sales and virtual training – but some of the ideas that helped keep other small businesses afloat during the pandemic didn’t work for a business catering to face-to-face sports training.
The shutdown of the business also hurt the clients who would usually attend the Sandlot multiple times a week for practice and lessons from Rocky.
“It was very sad for my son when it shut down,” said Tammy Ball, whose son Cooper has been going to the Sandlot for the past four years. “It was getting to where it was cold and you couldn’t go outside that much, and he enjoys going in there.”
On top of closing services to the public, the Sandlot also had to close its retail store.
The owners say it was sitting on $65,000 worth of inventory, which in a normal year would be sold through by April.
They said it was tough to turn away potential customers during the shutdown — especially when demand was clearly there.
“February, March and April is when kids are getting going and ready to get outside,” said Donna Ayers.
“We had customers during the shutdown that said, ‘I'll give you $200 to come in — and nobody else will be there’. It hurt us more than it did the kids to say, 'No.'”
As a small business already losing revenue, they couldn’t afford to break the rules of the shutdown and pay a fine upwards of $10,000.
During and end of shutdown
The Sandlot has since reopened, albeit limited, since the lockdown was lifted. During the early days of the pandemic, the Sandlot cycled through a bevy of ideas to regain lost revenue with little success. Their ideas included selling their inventory online, outside classes, and doing online classes via Zoom.
The Sandlot and other small businesses faced a stiff challenge at the beginning of the shutdown in March being forced to change the way to business due to the lack of face-to-face instruction.
"Whatever business model they had prior to the pandemic was literally blown out of the water, so they had to do this really quick pivot," said Corning Chamber of Commerce President Denise Maxa about area small businesses. "They had to reimagine how to conduct business under these circumstances."
Selling their inventory of baseball and softball equipment online was a thought — but costs to maintain and use a website for a small business didn’t make sense.
“We really looked into that,” said Ayers. “We don’t have enough inventory to be able to sustain an online store. An online store is expensive for a small business.”
Gyms at the time were doing classes outside with distancing, but group activities at parks were still limited.
“We were hoping we could have outdoor camps, but we just couldn’t work it out safely,” said Donna Ayers.
Zoom classes with instructors from Sandlot were also considered as an option, but both Donna and Rocky decided they couldn't guarantee the solid instruction they expect from themselves through an online class.
“We’ve had people ask about Zoom lessons, but we felt we couldn’t give the quality (we expect),” said Donna Ayers. “It’s different than with a teacher.”
Also, in normal times, instructors from the Sandlot would routinely give tips to clients via videoconferencing for free, and they didn’t want to start charging for a service they’ve provided free of charge in the past.
One thing they got to work on during the shutdown was creating Backyard Batter Pros in their facility. The Backyard Batter Pro is a 'soft-toss" training machine used for honing skills in baseball, softball and tennis.
Donna and Rocky purchased the Backyard Batter Pro company after being longtime users of it and turned a portion of their space into a workshop to build them.
“We sold about 300 of those in the last 2.5 years,” said Ayers. “By just word of mouth. We came in the building during shutdown and put 30-40 machines together. We have sold all but one since July.”
It was a demand that increased precisely because facilities like theirs were closed.
“With everything being shut down, kids still need something to do,” said Ayers. “We’re hoping we’ll be able to sell a lot of those, because they can just use it in their house.”
By June, state restrictions were lifted to a point where the Sandlot was allowed to reopen, much to the delight of customers.
“He was so super excited to be able to go back and practice,” Tammy Ball of her son, Cooper. “There wasn’t much he couldn't do at the house, and once it opened back up, he was asking pretty much every day if he could go.”
The facility is large, but the Ayerses won’t have more than 15 people in the building at a time due to safety concerns. Camps have been slashed to just seven students when they would normally have 20 or more.
Fear of another shutdown
Virus infection numbers in Steuben County and the surrounding areas have been increasing in recent months. For a small business like the Sandlot, that brings fears of another complete shutdown.
“We are treading water right now,” said Donna Ayers. “Sometimes we have a tiny bit of savings. Sometimes we have to pull from that for bills.”
Another lengthy shutdown for the business would be difficult — especially as they see other, larger business allowed to operate almost normally.
“We’re operating safely,” said Rocky Ayers. “Big box stores like Walmart can be open; why can’t a small business like this, where we know what everyone is doing? How can they leave them open and kill the small guys? It’s just not right.”
Some programs offered by New York State like Economic Injury Disaster Loans and the Paycheck Protection Program have helped, but with a minimal number of employees, those programs haven't been able to make up for losing business in peak months.
“We may not have a lot of employees, but the business affects hundreds of athletes and families,” said Ayers. “We sponsor teams. We do all sorts of stuff. A lot of businesses like that are important to the family community. We don’t have the jobs, but we have something else that is more personal.”
This year has been described by Donna and Rocky as one of the ‘toughest’ years since the opening of the facility in 2007. For a small business, the first couple of years are usually the hardest, they said, because gaining a clientele without money for advertising is challenging.
“We had to prove ourselves with instruction, especially,” said Donna Ayers.
The Sandlot purchased its current building last year, located at 11417 LPGA Dr. in Corning, and along with a "dead in the water" sports complex project in Chemung County that they invested $40,000 into with little return, the pandemic couldn’t have come at a worse time.
They fear that if they are forced to shut down again, they might not be able to recover.
“We’re at the point now where we just can’t be shut down again,” said Rocky Ayers. “We can’t come back. If they make us shut down, if they force it, the doors don’t open back up.”
Kids, community and outlook going forward
If the sole reason the Sandlot opened was to make money, the business would have closed a long time ago, Donna and Rocky said.
Through all of the trials of being a small niche business in 2020, the clientele and community is what makes it worth it to them.
“There were times that we needed to figure out what to sell to keep it going,” said Donna Ayers. “We thought, 'Maybe it’s a sign to cash it in' — then little Johnny comes to the counter saying he was excited and did well in his lesson. That’s what keeps us going. If it wasn’t for the kids, we would have said, 'Forget it,' a long time ago.”
Tyler Melko, a senior first-baseman at Post University and 12-year veteran at the Sandlot, agreed.
“They are the only place I know of that isn’t in it for the money,” said Melko. “They are in it to genuinely make people better at their respective sport.”
For a business that has made its name on building the personal relationships with clients, going months without seeing them was also hard.
“People are more than just clients,” said Ayers. “All of them are like family and friends. We’ve made so many good friends through this. It’s hard not being in here working with them and it's just as hard on us not seeing them.”
In normal times, the Sandlot sees clients from around the region — Wellsville, Troy, Wyalusing, Dryden, Hornell, Ithaca, Arkport, Elmira, Horseheads, Alfred-Almond and areas in Pennsylvania, among others — for lessons to refine their skills and become better players.
“They bring you in as a family, and that is the more meaningful thing, besides giving great instruction,” said Melko, who routinely makes the 45-minute drive from Knoxville, Pennsylvania, to train at the Sandlot.
Above the desk at the Sandlot hangs a decorative home plate, with the words, ‘Home is where the heart is.’
It was given to them by a customer, and the Ayers say it's symbolic of the Sandlot’s mission.
“They are friends,” said Donna Ayers. “We want people to feel like when they come they can be comfortable — want them to feel like it's home. We’ve never been so poor, but never been so happy.”
“It’s a wonderful place to go,” said Tammy Ball. “They’re kid-friendly, parent-friendly and really good at what they do. (Her son) Cooper wouldn’t be where he is right now without them.”
The Sandlot is still working on getting a larger indoor facility.
"We have currently been revamping the plans and working with local planning boards for the larger indoor facility that will focus on an indoor turf field house for community use," said Donna Ayer.
The Sandlot will continue to operate by appointment only for the time being, with the rising number of COVID-19 cases, but has some optimism going forward in light of the vaccines that have recently started rolling out.
“We are really hoping that now there is a vaccine, that’s going to be a turning point for a lot of people,” said Donna Ayers.