Macon hopes for home run
Macon County commissioners decided in a split vote this month to spend $3 million building a tournament-scale baseball and softball recreation complex.
“It’s been two years of pretty steady work, but it’s well worth it,” said Seth Adams, Macon County Parks and Recreation director. “I’m tickled to death that we can see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Commissioners bought a 48-acre site, dubbed the Parker Meadows property, early last year for $550,000 with an eye toward turning it into a ball field complex. That vote was a split decision as well, with two commissioners questioning the price tag — not only of the land but also the future cost to turn it into something.
Previously, commissioners had discussed developing the area in smaller pieces, but ultimately they decided to undertake the entire project at once.
Chairman Kevin Corbin, who joined Commissioners Ronnie Beale and James Tate in favor of the ball field complex, said that the county would save money in the long run by doing all the construction at once.
In addition, the county would gain use of the complex earlier, and, if all goes as hoped, the community would begin reaping the economic benefits of traveling ball tournaments more quickly.
Commissioner Paul Higdon, however, joined with Commissioner Ron Haven to oppose the motion.
“I’m not saying this complex is not a good idea,” Higdon said. “I just don’t think it’s a good time to be doing this.”
In a struggling economy, he said, government should be trying to reduce its expenses — and, therefore, burden on the taxpayer — rather than creating new ones.
“I’ve seen significant changes I’ve had to make in my business,” he said. “I don’t think that’s too much to ask of government.”
The Parker Meadows complex certainly won’t be cheap, although the $3.8 million cost is offset by a $500,000 grant from the state Parks and Recreation Trust Fund.
And it will continue to cost the county money even after its completion.
The design calls for a wide array of recreation facilities, including eight baseball and softball fields, a soccer field, courts for tennis and pickleball, picnic shelters, hiking trails and a nine-hole disc golf course. Adams will hire an additional 2.5 positions to supervise and care for the site, and he’ll also require additional funds for utilities and maintenance supplies.
The rec park will likely cost the county an additional $166,000 in annual operating costs above the current recreation budget of $624,000, Adams told commissioners.
Baseball as a moneymaker
However, rec complex proponents say, that’s not the whole story. The park will be more than just a place for Macon County residents to spend their leisure time, they say. It will boost the economic outlook for the entire community.
“Our estimated economic impact is $8 million per year for ball teams coming in, so it’s going to pay for itself in a very short period of time,” Corbin said.
The county would charge $25 per field per day, and income from the concession stands would provide some further benefit, but that’s not where the money is expected to come from.
“The moneymaker is to get the teams here and have them spend money in our community,” Adams said.
When teams travel to tournaments, they pump money into the economy though hotel bills and meals purchased in town, Adams said, and that’s good for everybody.
“It’s a low-impact industry that, at the same time, brings a good bit of income to the area,” Corbin said. “It’s a very green industry.”
Higdon, however, takes issue with the $8 million figure. Economic impacts are half science and half guesswork, he said, with the ripple effects of spending, job creation and reduced dependence on social services difficult to quantify.
“A lot of this economic stimulus is hard to put a number on,” he said. “A lot of that is subjective.”
And regardless of the numbers, he said, economic stimulus is not the government’s role. Instead, Macon County should focus on maintaining a regulatory framework conducive to business creation and growth.
“I never saw any solid documentation from places that have these complexes what this has done for the economy,” Higdon said.
It’s precisely because of the economic benefits, though, that Claire Carlton, director of Haywood County Parks and Recreation, has been trying to for years to turn Haywood’s 22-acre Johnson Creek tract into a tournament-level recreation complex.
“I think a lot of people get stuck on what it’s going to cost to build a facility, but your return for the community has the potential to be so great, that should be the bottom line,” she said.
Haywood County jumped at the chance to buy a large, flat tract of land when it became available several years ago for a ballfield complex. Similar to the rationale in Macon, Haywood leaders realized flat land was a rare commodity and put up $1 million to buy it when the getting was good.
A master plan was created for the site, but Haywood leaders have not been willing to put up the additional millions of dollars it would take to make the fields a reality. So the property sits vacant, waiting.
Carlton refers to cases such as Rocky Mount, N.C., whose sports complex drew 1,252 teams, 76,913 players and guests, $2.3 million in overnight dollars and $8.6 million in total economic impact in 2012-13.
“The single most lucrative thing that was ever built in Rocky Mount was the sports complex,” she said.
She concedes that, with a population of 57,136 as of 2012, Rocky Mount is a much larger community than either Waynesville or Franklin. Still, she said, “the main point is the same — nice facilities can and do impact your community and its citizens in a positive way.”
And as with anything, she added, it’s possible for a saturated market to result if every county were to build such a facility. But right now North Carolina’s only tournament-level baseball complex west of Asheville is the Crow Complex in Cherokee.
That facility isn’t seeing much action now, but it’s still capable of drawing teams, according to James Bradley, the Eastern Band of Cherokee’s director of community and recreation services.
“I think over the last few years, with casino proceeds the tribe and the services it offers have grown exponentially, so the focus got shifted to other things,” Bradley said.
In other words, the government’s capacity to initiate projects and services grew faster than its staff’s ability to manage all of them. Combine that with often-full hotel accommodations, also a side affect of the casino, and it became difficult to keep the complex going — at least as far as large tournaments were concerned. It still enjoys plenty of local use. However, Bradley said, the pre-casino effects on the community were substantial.
“There was definitely an economic impact,” he said.
Corbin is hopeful the same will hold true for Macon County.
“We’ve already had tournament directors contact us because they read in the media that we were considering this,” he said.
The Little League life
As a member of Macon County’s traveling baseball entourage, Butch Jean has long been part of that economic inflow — but to other communities. The Little League coach has participated in tournaments everywhere from Knoxville to Charlotte to Pigeon Forge, and he estimates that he spends about $400 each time on food, lodging and gas for himself, his wife and his grandson.
“I’ve talked to many other people who do travel ball, and that’s a pretty common number,” he said.
Typically, he’ll pay $80 or $90 for a hotel room and go out to eat at restaurants such as Red Lobster or Olive Garden, something he said the majority of the group does as well. Even at the last tournament he attended in Canton, Jean opted to get a hotel rather than make the drive back and forth from Franklin.
But the main reason Jean supports the decision to build the rec complex has little to do with economics. He spoke in support of the project at the commissioners’ Feb. 11 meeting, advising them that it was a needed facility for the kids and that it would be in the county’s best interest to do it right, if they decided to do it at all.
“I’m a very conservative person, fiscally and politically, but there are some things you just have to spend the money on. It’s a proven fact that kids that participate in things like that are less likely to get in trouble,” he said of team sports. “You can’t even build a cafeteria in a prison for $3 million.”
Currently, teams enter a lottery for practice fields, and many of the fields are in such a state of disrepair that they are dangerous to play on. Recognizing that need, commissioners also voted to spend $7,500 revamping those fields, a motion carried unanimously. In Macon County, about 1,100 people play organized softball and baseball, and there has long been a need to increase the number of fields, Jean said.
“As long as they’re going to do this and spend that money, do it right when at last you have some opportunity to make that investment,” Jean said.
So, while there’s no question that the complex will improve recreation opportunities for area ball players, it remains to be seen exactly how the new tournament center will affect the bottom line of the county and its residents. Every community is different, so the benefits of a rec complex like Macon’s tournament-center-to-be are never uniform. However, the majority of the commissioners is hopeful it will be a boon for the county.
“We have that same attraction [as places like Pigeon Forge], but in addition we’re not quite as tourist-oriented and not quite as busy,” Corbin said, “so I think this is going to make it more attractive for folks to come over here.”
The 48-acre Parker Meadows Recreational Park will include a lot more than just baseball fields. The plans call for a nature trail with Crossfit stations, a soccer field, tennis courts, a playground and pavilions with picnic tables, among other amenities.
The goal is to have a grand opening at the start of summer 2015. Construction should begin by this June.
Of the $3 million cost for construction of the Parker Meadows ballfield complex, Macon County will dip into savings to pay for $1 million up front. It will borrow the remaining $1.8 million. At 2.48 percent, interest on the 10-year loan will cost an additional $250,000. That all adds up to $3.3 million, and the county has already shelled out $550,000 for the land, bringing the total price tag to $3.8 million. Many, though, are looking forward to the result.
“We’re going to have something Macon County will be proud of once it’s all said and done,” Adams said.