By Gary Gray
Plans for a new 62-acre athletic facility on land adjacent to Winged Deer Park was initially met with a heavy dose of “sticker shock” by Johnson City commissioners at a recent workshop.
Assistant City Manager Charlie Stahl, Parks and Recreation Director James Ellis and Daniel Boutte, a senior landscape architect with Knoxville’s Lose & Associates, proposed building an $18 million facility just south of Winged Deer.
Though the price raised a few eyebrows and some doubt about the plan’s feasibility, commissioners and city staff spent an hour rifling over financials, land options and “what-ifs.” The preferred plan shows five baseball fields grouped together, two smaller softball/baseball (all grass) fields nearby, two soccer fields, a lot with 400 parking spaces, a picnic area, pavilion, playground, concessions/restrooms, a maintenance building and three detention ponds.
“Most national softball tournaments bring over 100 teams,” Ellis said. “The luxury we have with the diamond fields is it helps take care of our citizens, and there will be a return on investment with girls and boys tournaments. A one-stop-shop atmosphere gives Johnson City a better chance at a return on investment, since players don’t have to continue to pick up and move to another location.”
Commissioner Ralph Van Brocklin wasted no time expressing his displeasure that the plan was not broad enough in scope, did not include specific options and did not come with an estimate of how much revenue the new facility would bring in.
This did not halt the conversation. Instead, it propelled it, opening up many possible advantages as well as unanswered questions that will be back on the table at another workshop in December.
The Parks & Recreation Advisory Board unanimously voted on Sept. 28 to recommend the purchase of 37 acres owned by Joe Wilson and about 25 acres owned by Heyward Sell. Both properties are on Bristol Highway, with the Wilson property including frontage on the road and the Sell property sitting above on a significantly steep grade. A nearby church owns another 6 acres nearer the Sell property, which also is being considered for purchase and use.
“You’ve got about $2.5 million in property to buy, so you’re looking at a $22 million project,” said City Manager Pete Peterson. “It would be totally dependent on a tax increase, or a tax increase and the use of debt roll-off. If we want to spend $22 million on a new facility, it would really be a stretch.”
Finance Director Janet Jennings said an 11-cent property tax rate increase would be needed to fund the new facility.
Jennings also confirmed the city could buy the properties this fiscal year without a tax hike. She then proceeded to lay out the city’s bonding capacities (maximum) which revealed the estimated cost could be paid for in stages through bond roll-off and with a final bond issue in 2021 to cover the total.
Peterson asked Ellis what the operating costs would add to the overall price tag. Initially, about $337,000, which would be a recurring cost every five to seven years, would be needed for equipment, materials and other costs. The annual cost for maintenance and other needs would be about $85,000, and the annual cost for personnel, an additional $177,000.
The demand for local softball and soccer league space has been on the rise for years, and the nearly 1,000 kids signed up through the city’s Parks and Recreation Department for spring league soccer alone is evidence.
A national softball tournament last year drew 80 teams at Winged Deer Park and several other city parks, and a Chamber-sponsored ASA tournament featuring women 18 and under followed. New and renovated diamond-shaped and rectangular fields have been a hot topic, and the plan presented recently is at least a part of a master plan that has been talked about for years.
There also has been a surge in interest for soccer, lacrosse, rugby, field hockey and football — thus the need for more rectangular fields. Several options sprang up regarding placement, and a few existing city sites are being considered. Ellis said the next step will likely be looking at drafting a rendering for a soccer complex on land near Indian Ridge Road.
Options include a partnership with Washington County, which is building an athletic facility near the new Boones Creek K-8. That plan includes four diamond-shaped fields and one rectangular field. A task force continues to explore the options on a facility that originally was estimated to cost $2 million, but now has risen from between $2.3 million to $3.3 million.