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ALPENA — There’s a lot of history to be found on Sarah Melching’s refrigerator.

The fridge is a place for Melching and her family to mark the passage of time, as evidenced by the more than two dozen sports photo magnets that dot its exterior. Those magnets represent memories, especially those of her sons, Bryce and Bode, playing soccer, basketball, baseball, and hockey.

“It’s a nice thing, because, when they get older, you look back and think, ‘How cool that Mom collected those for me?’” Melching said.

Melching had plans this spring to add more magnets from Bryce’s baseball season and Bode’s first season of T-ball, but those memories won’t be added to her family’s collection because Melching is one of dozens of local parents without pictures, magnets, or any items they ordered in June from the company Sports Photography America during the youth sports league Alpena Huron Shore Babe Ruth’s team picture day.

Rather than getting cherished memories, parents have been left angry, confused, and apparently swindled out of their money by a company no one — including The News — can seem to get an answer from.

Sports Photography America has yet to send anything back to Alpena Huron Shore Babe Ruth, forcing the organization to look at pursuing legal options to get parents their money back and scramble to make other photo arrangements.

“I’m disappointed,” Melching said. “It’s kind of like we’ve been robbed.”

NOTHING OUT OF THE ORDINARY

Team picture day for the league arrived a little later than usual this spring, on June 2.

Sports Photography America, an East Lansing-based company, showed up with professional equipment and seemed to run a smooth operation, a step up from what some parents were used to with some local photographers, some said. Players posed for team photos and were shot individually in a pavilion against a black backdrop, allowing the company’s photographers to place the players in another background during the editing process, as is often done for team banners and posters.

The league usually puts bids out to local photographers for team pictures, but some last-minute changes led the organization to hire an out-of-town company.

“We try to do everything we can to keep it keep it local,” league Treasurer Matthew Amlotte said. “The company we’ve been using was unavailable at the time, and we were left scrambling.”

When Amlotte talked to Sports Photography America photographer Jim Hargrove, “he seemed like a nice guy.”

While the prices were a little higher than some parents typically paid, parents wrote checks for team photos, individual pictures, magnets, buttons, keychains, and other keepsakes.

Melching was impressed that the company could shoot pictures of both of her boys together and remembers ordering team photos, individual shots, shots of the two boys together, and magnets. She and other parents who wrote checks said those checks were cashed and cleared quickly.

Sports Photography America boasts on its website of having its own photo lab, making for quick turnarounds on photos. Parents figured they would get their orders in a timely manner.

“The day of pictures, I didn’t think there was anything out of the ordinary,” parent Jan Male said. “We always have them back by the end of the season.”

EXCUSES, EXCUSES

Sports Photography America bills itself as Michigan’s only full-service sports photography company. The company shoots high school, middle school, club, youth, and college sports, and says it provides services in Michigan, northern Indiana, and northern Ohio.

Its website looks professional and the company touts affordability, dependability, speed, and experience among its hallmarks.

But since the Alpena photo day and a make-up day on June 10, Alpena parents have yet to receive anything. Instead, Huron Shores has been given an ever-growing list of excuses for the delays and attempts to get a straight answer from Hargrove have proven challenging, officials said.

In mid-July, the league was told Hargrove couldn’t get a final answer from the lab on when pictures would be printed or finished. The plan was for Hargrove to send the pictures to another lab, and he apologized for the delay, citing a busy shooting schedule.

Later in the month, the league was told its pictures would have to be pulled from one lab and sent to another because of a problem beyond the photographer’s control.

On Sept. 6, Hargrove apologized again for the delays and promised to personally put picture packages together. On Sept. 26, Huron Shores posted an update to its Facebook page, which stated an attorney had been hired and a demand letter sent to the company.

Amlotte said Huron Shores is exploring all options and is gathering information from people who ordered from the company in preparation for a possible lawsuit.

“Basically, the guy keeps giving us the runaround,” Amlotte said. “It’s been a big problem for us since day one.”

Calls to Hargrove for this article went unreturned, as did an email to the company.

LOOKING FOR ANSWERS

It’s hard to say how much Sports Photography America has apparently taken from local parents, but it could easily be thousands of dollars.

Amlotte said there were nearly 600 kids in Huron Shores this spring and, even if each family spent $20, the number is still alarmingly high –almost $12,000.

It’s likely the number is much higher than that, especially for families who might have two or three kids playing ball in the same season.

Male spent less than $50 this year, buying refrigerator magnets and a team photo for her 10-year-old daughter, Meghan. Losing money hurts, but, like many parents, Male’s frustrated at losing out on the memories those items represent, especially in Meghan’s first year of softball.

“I didn’t have that much invested in it, but, for me, it was daughter’s first year playing softball and she had a blast,” Male said. “Now, I don’t have that. It’s the memory part that I can’t get back, and they ripped off all the parents in this town who bought those packages.”

Many parents have tried calling or emailing the company themselves and gotten no response.

Alpena parents aren’t alone in their frustration. A Little League organization in Ypsilanti had team photos taken by Sports Photography America in May and parents haven’t received their pictures, according to social media posts.

“You’d like to believe this wasn’t done maliciously, but you would think there would have been a solution by now,” Melching said. “I look at how many families are in the program and you start adding those up. There are thousands of dollars that have been taken from families.”

With many parents still fuming and no word from Hargrove, a local photographer has reached out to Huron Shores and offered her services to take individual pictures at no cost.

Amlotte has had a little bit of communication with Hargrove through text messages, but said he’s grown tired of the endless stream of excuses.

“I’ll believe (him) when I have them in my hands,” Amlotte said.

James Andersen can be reached at 989-358-5694, sports@thealpenanews.com or on Twitter @ja_alpenanews.

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