July 16, 2019 10:41:56 AM
Planning for Lowndes County's Fiscal Year 2020 budget has already begun. How a new sports complex officials have promised to build west of Columbus fits into that remains unclear.
Questions linger over when the complex will be built and what exactly it will be. One matter, at least, seems decided -- the Lowndes complex does not intend to compete against the $20-million tournament ready facility planned in Starkville.
"We want to build a park for our local people to play," said board of supervisors president Harry Sanders. "That's the No. 1 priority. If we get some tournaments, that's fine, but that's not the primary function. We aren't looking to be in competition with Southaven, Starkville or anyone else."
As to the other "when" and "what" questions, both Sanders and county recreation interim director Roger Short believe they have those answers, too.
"As far as I'm concerned, the plan for now is to turn dirt on construction in 18 months, and it will take another six months to complete it," Sanders said. "That way, our people can start using it in two years or so. ... But plans can change."
The county purchased the 89-acre Penn Taylor Farm off North Frontage Road, just east of Taylor Thurston Road, for $840,000 in July 2018 to build the complex as the centerpiece for its recreation department that split from the joint Columbus-Lowndes Recreation Authority in October 2017. The estimated cost for the whole project, land purchase included, is roughly $4 million.
Short has proposed building 14 fields -- five for baseball, five for youth softball and four for adult softball -- that will host everything from T-ball to adult leagues. Originally, the plan included 17 fields, with some specifically meant for T-ball use, but Short said he scaled it back to allow more space for parking and future growth.
The county parks hosts its leagues now at Lake Lowndes State Park in New Hope, where it pays Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks $500 per month to lease the ball fields. Short said the county intends to continue that lease agreement after the new complex is built, so teams can use those fields for practice.
He said he expects the new complex to peacefully coexist with the independent parks systems in Caledonia and Columbus -- the latter of which is planning $1.6 million in renovations to its flagship Propst Park baseball and softball fields.
"We're not trying to shut down Propst Park or Ola J. Pickett Park (in Caledonia)," Short said. "I fully expect their leagues to continue there. But this (complex) will be for everybody in the county to use, including them."
An argument for waiting
Next year's budget will almost certainly include funds for site prep -- such as water and sewer installation -- and engineering plans for the new complex, according to Sanders and County Administrator Ralph Billingsley.
The county receives $300,000 from 2-percent restaurant sales tax funds for recreation. Roughly one-third of that is paying the annual note on the property over the next eight years. What's left, they said, should be enough to cover much of the preliminary site work.
But past that, their two plans diverge.
While Sanders wants to push forward as money becomes available, Billingsley plans to recommend supervisors wait at least two, if not three, budget cycles, to allow county reserves to build.
Specifically, Billingsley said he wants the county to build a healthy reserve of interest from the trust fund established from the sale of the once county-owned hospital. The county can withdraw up to 3-percent interest on Aug. 31 each year to use for capital improvement projects. Since 2013, Billingsley said, it has withdrawn $3.9 million and the corpus (the principal) has grown to $34.8 million.
The county will likely issue bonds to build the complex using hospital fund interest to repay the debt without plans to raise taxes, but Billingsley wants a backup plan for years when there is no interest to withdraw, which was the case in 2018.
"We still have a little more than a month to go before we'll know for sure, but based on the market value today, we could withdraw a little over $1 million (in August)," he said. "Hopefully, we can pull that much next year, too. So, you get a couple million built up, then if you have a down year where you can't withdraw any money, then you have a nice reserve you can use to cover the debt."
Sanders said he sees Billingsley's point, but he thinks it's "too conservative," especially with the restaurant tax money coming in.
"That's what you want from the person looking after your finances and operations, but if it was left up to Ralph, nothing would ever get done," Sanders said. "He can recommend, but he doesn't have a vote."
Brooks: Against a 'hodge-podge' plan
District 5 Supervisor Leroy Brooks does get a vote, and he's not sure how he will use it yet.
For one, he doesn't think there is a clear consensus from the board as to what exactly needs to be built, and he wants county leaders -- including the supervisors, Billingsley and Short -- to consent to a series of workshops to clearly define it.
Also, if the county is going to invest in such a major project, Brooks wants it done right the first time. And he's not certain Short's plan for baseball and softball fields is quite enough.
"I don't have any preconceived notions about what it's going to be, but I don't want to hodge-podge this thing," he said. "I don't want to spend $2 million or $3 million when we should have spent $6 million or $7 million to do it right. Every dollar we spend out there needs to generate a dollar back. So I have no problem waiting to do the right thing."
One thing Brooks wants to discuss is recruiting a private investor to locate some type of recreational business on the site along with the fields.
"People love water parks, but I'm not saying that's what we need specifically," he said. "That's just an example."
Brooks also remains concerned the sports complex and Propst Park will organically compete with, and therefore dilute, one another.
"When I look at spending this kind of money on two facilities so close together, it still seems like an extremely bad idea to me that (city and county recreation) ever split up," he said.
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.
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