March 4, 2009
This week the county took one more step toward what until recently has been a mirage on the distant horizon, a sportsplex.
At its regular board meeting Monday, the Lowndes County Parks and Recreation Authority made public 11 sites under consideration for a recreation complex for youth soccer, adult softball and football.
Since funds have not been approved for the project, this may be a case of putting the cart before the horse. Any doubts about support for the project should have been eased at a public hearing in February when business leaders, parents and soccer coaches spoke unanimously and enthusiastically in favor of what has been termed a quality of life issue and an economic development project.
The city and county will split the costs of the facility, expected to be $10 million or more. It''s likely the Columbus Convention and Visitors Bureau, which receives its funding from a 2-percent restaurant tax, will be asked to chip in.
The costs and sizes of the proffered sites vary widely. (For map: http://www.cdispatch.com/mashups/sportsplex.asp)
The Charles Miller family is offering a 55-acre parcel six-tenths of a mile north of Columbus Nissan for $4,495 an acre for a total of $242,250. At the other end of the spectrum, LBJ Development has a 135-acre parcel at the intersection of Waverly Ferry and Lincoln roads for $28,500 an acre for a total of $3.8 million. LBJ is represented by Mike Dunaway, the son-in-law of the late Ralph Williamson, who before his death acquired extensive land along Waverly Ferry Road in anticipation of a Highway 45 bypass that has yet to be built.
The two most hotly discussed parcels were not submitted, but have been included in the list of possibilities. A 156-acre tract of land adjacent to the Riverwalk owned by the Army Corps of Engineers has been under consideration for years. Priced at $474,864, the land has no roads to it. Two options have been mentioned as a way to access the Corps land, neither of them without challenges. Plymouth Road, north of Highway 82 would have to be extended and somehow taken under 82 or a new road would have to be built in the narrow strip of land between the Riverwalk and 82. Such a road, eight-tenths to a mile in length, would add as much as $1 million to the price tag and would degrade the natural beauty and tranquility of the Riverwalk, a park that has become a source of community pride. A single winding road through the woods would offer less than ideal access to a facility used by hundreds of patrons.
Another in-town site mentioned is Burns Bottom, the area surrounding and north of the hitching lot. Parks and Rec would have to acquire 31 parcels of land with a total assessed value of $462,840. It is naive to think that Burns Bottom residents, some of whom have lived there for many years, would give up their land without a fight or at the appraised value. Acquiring that land could involve years of legal wrangling.
We have argued in this space that such a complex so near Main Street could have a detrimental effect on our carefully nurtured historic downtown, another source of civic pride.
A sportsplex is a vast expanse of athletic fields. Quite likely, most of the time -- off-season and during the daytime -- those fields will be empty. Acres of empty soccer fields surrounded by chain-link fences, grandstands, lights and press boxes are not an enhancement for every type of neighborhood.
We urge the Parks and Rec Board and the ad hoc recreation committee to consider a choice with good access to Highways 82 and 45, such as the property offered by Grayco near the Macon-Meridian exit, which is minutes from the restaurants and motels along Highway 45.
The most expensive tract, the site owned by the Williamson family on Lincoln Road, is ideally located, though less visible (That could change when and if a bypass is built.). An almost $4 million price tag and twice the land needed could knock it out of the running.
We applaud Parks and Rec for opening up the process and allowing the public to have input. We encourage you, the public, to weigh in with your concerns and choices. All of the sites have pluses and minuses. We urge Parks and Rec to remain independent, to judge the sites on their own merits and to avoid the temptation to yield to political influence.
This decision will have long-lasting consequences on the development and the appearance of our community. We urge those charged with making the decision to proceed with care, caution and open minds.