County lukewarm on IP complex takeover
A quick discussion by the Haywood County Board of Commissioners on July 16 about the possibility of taking responsibility for the International Paper Sports Complex in Canton left commissioners with more questions than answers.
“I need more information on this,” said Commissioner Mike Sorrells when the issue came up during the commission meeting. “Until we get more information we don’t know which direction we could go anyway. It’s a good facility and I think there’s a desire to expand county recreation a bit, but I have no idea what money we’re looking at or what it all entails.”
Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick said he’d scheduled the agenda item to determine if the board was interested in continuing the discussion with the Town of Canton.
On June 5, the county’s Recreation Advisory Board voted to recommend that commissioners “explore” the possibility of relieving the Town of Canton of responsibility for the complex, which costs about $150,000 a year to maintain, but generates less than $3,000 a year in revenue.
Canton Mayor Zeb Smathers sits on that board, as does Haywood County Commissioner Brandon Rogers, who is also from the eastern end of Haywood County.
Rogers has been a vocal proponent of recreation even before his tenure on the board of commissioners, and has said that he’d like to see more of a county presence, recreationally speaking, on the eastern end of the county.
Smathers, on the other hand, told The Smoky Mountain News a few weeks ago that Canton doesn’t have the resources to maximize utilization of the property, which the town still leases from former owners of what is now Evergreen Packaging.
“They have a recreation department, full-time employees, a lot more resources,” said Smathers of Haywood County’s Recreation and Parks Department. “We have struggled year in year out, even since I was an alderman, saying we need to do more. We have not been able to do that because of how tight our budget is.”
Indeed, the county’s budget is dozens of millions of dollars greater than Canton’s, and were the county to assume responsibility for the complex, home to ball fields and batting cages, there’s hope they’d invest more resources in making it more attractive.
Canton Alderman Dr. Ralph Hamlett expressed support for the proposal when it was first broached by Smathers last month. Alderwoman Kristina Smith echoed Hamlett.
Not everyone, however, is sold on the idea.
“I think what’s important to me is that the Town of Canton no longer wants to manage that or lease that, and there’s a reason for that,” Kirkpatrick said.
Kevin FitzGerald, who chairs the recreation advisory board, admitted the same.
“Like you we have a lot of questions about what the real costs are, and what the needs are. I learned a long time ago that people don’t generally give you something that has value, for nothing.”
Kirkpatrick noted that it wouldn’t be as simple as just taking over and sending lawnmowers to the property once a week.
“If the county was to take it over we would need a significant plan as to what we’re going to do with that property, so we can use it for the best interests of Haywood County,” he said. “We certainly don’t want to take over a significant complex and not have a plan for its use. As far as recreation goes, we all know it’s not a moneymaker, but it’s certainly a quality of life issue.”
FitzGerald said the recreation advisory board would begin to compile a variety of scenarios under which the county might participate, either in a public-private or public-public partnership. Commissioner Kevin Ensley, however, seemed supportive of finding some solution.
“I want to see the county do more with recreation,” said Ensley, who added that when Interim County Manager Joel Mashburn first stepped into his Haywood County role, he was surprised at just how little the county did. We’ve let towns do recreation probably for too long, and we’ve not really contributed to that. I think people that move here expect us to be doing more recreation than we do.”
Rogers was not present at the commission meeting, nor was Smathers.