By Gary Gray
Johnson City officials still are chiseling away at their options to accommodate the urgent need for diamond-shaped and rectangular athletic fields for citizens and potential money-making tournaments.
On Nov. 21, the Athletic Facility Task Force meeting began with discussion of minute scheduling details at the county’s coming 35-acre athletic complex near the new Boones Creek K-8. But it ended in a consensus that, if Johnson City and Washington County are going to partner in its construction and use, a private engineering or architectural firm should step in to provide detailed costs.
“Technically, this is county property and not Washington County Board of Education property,” City Manager Pete Peterson told members. “The way it’s been explained to me is that Tony Street is employed by the Board of Education.”
The athletic facility sits on county-owned land, and is not school property. Yet it has been Street, the architect for the new school, who has provided renderings and has been taking suggestions for the athletic facility. Peterson cited a possible conflict of interest and suggested he and city staff consult several firms to see what a complete review and financial report of the facility would encompass.
“That school building isn’t going anywhere,” Peterson said. “And if we start blowing the fields up, we can easily add 30- to 40-percent to the cost, so I’d suggest we engage a professional to narrow this thing down. I’d rather spend $20,000 to $30,000 now and find out this is not feasible instead of watching the price continue to grow beyond what we can afford.”
County Mayor Dan Eldridge has the facility currently at an $8 million price tag, which includes the land purchase, grading and construction of four diamond-shaped fields and a soccer/football field with a track. But the county now wants the city to pay for lighting, irrigation and grounds maintenance at the facility.
The original plan came back at the most recent meeting with a fifth diamond-shaped field penciled in over the soccer field, giving the facility a fourth, 300-foot field and one 225-foot field. County officials also confirmed this would mean the loss of the track. Talk also turned to possibly placing artificial turf on the surfaces.
Members, as well as Johnson City Parks and Recreation Athletics Manager David Carmichael, agreed this would be preferred, since it would assure coaches and tournament officials fewer rainouts. But the cost is high — perhaps as much as $1 million per field, including irrigation.
“We have allotted money for the land cost and grading, but there has been no money approved beyond that,” said County Commissioner Bryan Davenport.
The group is tentatively set to meet again at 6 p.m. on Dec. 13 at Winged Deer Park.
The city’s needs remain unchanged: Five, 300-foot diamond-shaped fields and four to five additional rectangular fields to accommodate soccer, rugby, lacrosse and football, according to Carmichael.
On Nov. 16, the city’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Board raked through their options in a meeting at which a few defined targets emerged.
“What we’ve been hearing from the city for the last two years is, ‘we want more fields, but we want a complex,’” said Parks and Recreation Advisory Board Chair Jonathan Kinnick. “We’ve got to make it clear to the City Commission that you can’t go for a piecemeal option and then have them come back and say, ‘we want a complex.’”
First, a sports complex, or “one-stop-shop,” with four to five baseball/softball fields remains tops on the list. The location of that complex is not yet in city officials’ sights, but the proposed 62-acre facility on 37 acres owned by Joe Wilson and 25 acres owned by the Sell family adjacent to Winged Deer Park appears to remain the leading prospect.
The News & Neighbor learned soon after the advisory board met with city commissioners to discuss that option — an option not immediately well received because of an estimated build-out cost of more than $22 million — that a South Carolina company was nearing the purchase of Wilson’s 37 acres along Bristol Highway.
Some members felt buying the land now and building as the city could afford it was the best idea — at least for the time being. They also felt the city could profit from the buy even if the fields were ultimately placed elsewhere.
“I’m kind of in a quandary,” said advisory board member Mark Durkee. “I don’t think the commission is going to go for more than one project.”
Second, about 60 acres of privately owned land off Indian Ridge Road is available. Though the entire 60 acres could not be used because of an existing stream and detention pond, board members agreed the land offered the needed space but further studies are in order.
Third, several other options were introduced, including a partnership with Washington County, which is building an athletic facility near the new Boones Creek K-8. The placement of soccer fields on the city’s elementary school properties also was discussed.
Parks and Recreation Director James Ellis updated board members on what that facility offered and the progress made so far by a joint, 11-member task force assembled to see if a partnership might work.
“I’ve basically told them if we can’t get four, 300-foot fields, the project is probably not feasible,” Ellis said. “Tournament directors want to go where there’s four, 300-foot fields in one place.”
Presently, only about 25 acres of city-owned land is available for this use.
“They’re not building more land,” Kinnick said.
Ellis said placing one or more soccer fields on school property would mean only that teams could practice, and not play games or participate in tournaments in those locations. Vice-Chair Ross Duncan did not favor the idea and warned other members that traffic and new lighting near schools would result in kickback from nearby residential property owners.
The group also looked at the possibility of constructing one soccer field at Lions Park. A presentation showed the field overlaid on top of one of the existing Little League/recreation baseball/softball fields. This too, was met with little enthusiasm.
Here’s what’s next.
Ellis and Daniel Boutte, a senior landscape architect with Knoxville’s Lose & Associates, will work to better define potential land availability and costs, including all potential sites. Ellis plans to communicate with board members as he goes forward, and a joint December meeting with the city commission and advisory board is in the works. Meanwhile, discussions between members of the Athletic Facility Task Force continue regarding the possible city/county partnership at that facility.