By Gary Gray
A potential Washington County-Johnson City partnership to construct and maintain an $8 million sports complex on the county’s 35-acre site next to the new Boones Creek K-8 hit the wall last week when engineering estimates and lack of space between the fields and the school proved too much to overcome.
“We’re not where we were when we were very excited at the beginning, but I want to maintain our relationship,” said Athletic Facility Task Force co-chair and Johnson City Commissioner Todd Fowler. “He (Daniel Boutte, a senior landscape architect with Knoxville’s Lose & Associates) concluded that costs would be $62,000 to do a basic, preliminary design. I was trying everything I could to get this to work. We didn’t want to spend $62,000 if it wasn’t going to meet Parks and Recreation’s needs. And that being the case, I don’t think it’s in the city’s best interest to go forward.”
Task force co-chair and Washington County Board of Education member Clarence Mabe glanced down at the conference table.
“Well, we tried,” he said. “I’d like to thank you all for considering it.”
Mabe then suggested constructing two fields at the site for the city’s use. But again, the well-known and well-publicized need for four, 300-foot fields dampened any earnest enthusiasm.
The lack of connectivity from planned parking areas and the facility and poor visibility also were cited as obstacles in the quest to meet Johnson City’s burgeoning demand for recreational, league, and if feasible, tournament play.
Johnson City Vice Mayor Jenny Brock said in a meeting about 10 days ago after hearing from Boutte that, “If it’s not spectator friendly, it’s a deal breaker.”
The group of Washington County, Johnson City and Jonesborough officials and athletic administrators met four times, beginning in early fall. Renderings initially showed three fields and one rectangular field — all in very close proximity to the school.
At the next meeting, Mabe handed out a one-page sheet showing the $8 million estimate. But it also included a request that the city to pay for lighting, irrigation and grounds maintenance at the facility.
The third meeting was held Nov. 21 at which a one-page drawing was distributed. This indicated a fourth, but smaller diamond-shaped field hand-drawn over the top of the rectangular field. At that meeting, City Manager Pete Peterson strongly suggested looking at the costs of professional engineering services.
A Dec. 13 meeting was called off. The group’s short Jan. 24 meeting likely will be the last, though city officials left open the idea of revisiting the partnership should the county be able to work some magic.
One day after the task force meeting, the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board convened to come up with a recommendation for new athletic fields. The group has been to the table and back several times with city commissioners in an effort to find a spark that might ignite motivation and funding methods for several propositions.
They voted to do so again this week, and will recommend the purchase of 37 acres owned by Joe Wilson located next to Winged Deer Park on which five new softball fields, with the option of an additional two soccer fields, would be built.
Construction estimates are about $9.7 million. This does not include purchase of the land or contingency costs. This option, which has been referred to as a “one-stop-shop” sports complex, has for some time been the board’s preferred choice — at very least, the land purchase has been championed so fields can be built when more funds are on hand.
The board also will make known their preference for a $5 million project in which four, regulation-size soccer fields near Winged Deer Park’s Boone Lake waterfront would be built on city-owned land.
“What I see know is more momentum on this than I’ve seen in my seven years on the City Commission,” said Commissioner Ralph Van Brocklin, who has consistently attended the meetings. “But I do not think commissioners are going to want to spend money on both the Wilson project and the waterfront. Put your preferences in the form of a formal recommendation.
“I love the idea of packaging them, but there are only so many dollars available. If this is what you want, I believe we need to hold a public referendum on this and let the citizens decide whether they want to help pay for it. This way we would find out if it also is their preference.”
An 11-cent property tax has been mentioned during discussions, and that is an estimated amount for the Wilson property project only.
Though several similar concepts have popped up throughout the years for placement of fields on Winged Deer’s lakefront, each has been turned away in favor of maintaining the park’s passive recreation area and avoiding conflict with boating and lakeside events.
“We do have the Keefauver option (55-acre Keefauver farm) to pacify the passive,” said board member Grant Summers about potential opposition to soccer fields on the waterfront.
The 60- by 125-yard fields with bleachers are laid out side to side just off Carroll Creek Road above the existing playground area on relatively flat land. The plan, which will not affect the amphitheater and annual Lakeside Concert Series, or the existing passive recreation area, includes a new access road, bike rack, restrooms and pavilion in a central location, an asphalt walking trail and the addition of more than 200 parking spaces at the northeast corner of the complex.
Parks and Recreation currently operates, maintains and schedules events on five diamond-shaped softball fields and three rectangular fields at Winged Deer Park. The addition of proposed fields on the Wilson and waterfront properties would mean a total of 10 softball fields and seven soccer fields with the possibility of two additional soccer fields.