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Wednesday, 07 April 2010 17:37

A tale of two sports at new Jonathan Creek Park

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It’s not often that soccer players go head-to-head with softball and baseball athletes.

But whenever Haywood County decides to build a new recreation park, they may do just that.

A competitive spirit creeps from the field into public meetings, as athletes from the same sport band together to make the case for a facility that will best meet their needs.

In recent years, the debate has fostered a rivalry between soccer lovers and those passionate about baseball and softball. Now that the county has begun design work on a new park in Jonathan Creek, the same dialogue has resurfaced.

Of course, the county recreation board would love to satisfy athletes from all sports with pristine new fields, but lack of available funding demands tough choices.

So far, Haywood’s recreation board has collected ample citizen input to assist them in the decision-making process. The board has put out two online surveys and held two public meetings. An impressive crowd of almost 60 people piled in to have their say at both meetings.

For this round, the baseball/softball folks have earned a clear upper hand, despite soccer players’ success in skewing the online survey results toward developing a soccer field.

The county recreation board has opted for a mix of uses at the Jonathan Creek park with a heavy emphasis on baseball and softball. The three potential design concepts presented at the last public meeting each include four baseball fields and one “multipurpose” field.

Two sets of plans for the park have emerged as frontrunners. One plan entails four softball fields and a large multipurpose artificial turf field that could be adapted as a full-size soccer field. The other also has four softball fields clustered centrally as a single complex, but leaves less space for the multi-use field, which is smaller.

The board’s decision was heavily guided by a recreation master plan developed by the county in 2007. The plan demonstrates a clear need for more facilities for all three sports, but a greater deficit of softball and baseball fields than for soccer.

“The master plan is just clear cut, right there,” said Claire Carleton, Haywood County recreation director. “Since we don’t have any baseball/softball fields, that’s where the most urgent needs lies.”

According to the study, the county needs seven more baseball fields and seven softball fields by 2027. In comparison, there will be a deficit of only two soccer fields and two multipurpose fields that same year.

On the other hand, soccer fields are cheaper to develop than baseball and softball fields. Building a soccer field with a goal on each end is a less complicated proposition than developing baseball and softball fields with dugouts, fencing and score boxes.

On Tuesday, April 6, the recreation board will consider which of the three plans to adopt. Each side continues to make their case, and one thing is clear: the debate is far from over in Haywood County.

Developing a moneymaker

Money is not trailing far behind sports in the minds of citizens enthused by the new park.

Residents overwhelmingly favor developing a sports park that produces revenue by ushering traveling teams to the region’s hotels, restaurants and other businesses.

Investing in a high-quality sports complex does have potential to bring serious cash flow into the county, according to Steve Fritts, landscape architect with Barge, Waggoner, Sumner and Cannon.

His firm, which is designing the Jonathan Creek Park, recently completed a tournament-size softball complex in Chattanooga. On its opening weekend, 250 teams descended on the town to utilize the $11 million, eight-field complex.

Meanwhile, the vision for a park in Jonathan Creek is currently limited to 22 acres of space. Fritts has recommended expanding the park to at least 40 acres in the future.

A dearth of funding is the major obstacle in creating a larger park, however. Haywood County commissioners have already dropped $1 million to purchase the park property, while the Town of Maggie Valley also chipped in $115,000 toward the property purchase.

In addition, the recreation board has found it difficult to commit the entire park to just one sport. It turned down the firm’s proposal for developing five baseball fields — even though that would likely prove more lucrative in attracting tournaments.

Recreation Director Claire Carleton said the board shied away from narrowing the scope of the park to ensure that the community facility offers something for everyone.

The three concepts the board chose included not only baseball/softball fields and a multipurpose field, but also a playground, an accessible fishing pier, a greenway trail, a water play area, a loop trail with fitness stations, and picnic shelters.

While a larger park would improve prospects of hosting tournaments, Carleton is pleased with the progress on the park as is.

“This is an excellent start for the county,” said Carleton.

Despite a meeting scheduled for Tuesday, April 6, the board may not vote on adopting a specific plan just yet. County Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick, who sits on the recreation board, pointed out that the reality of a new recreation facility is still a long way away.

“The fact of the matter is this is a plan to utilize that property but not necessarily the exact plan that will be used at the time of construction,” Kirkpatrick said.

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