By Gary Gray
Washington County’s 37-acre athletic complex that will sit on 57 acres with the new Boones Creek K-8 school will be graded and prepared for construction, but specifics about how the facility will be managed, operated and marketed remain a mystery.
A joint committee is being formed through which discussions may or may not resolve these questions. Johnson City has in place Commissioner Todd Fowler, Johnson City Parks and Recreation Director James Ellis, Champion Chevrolet owner Tim Copenhaver and Johnson City Regional Planning Commission Chair Tim Zajonc, according to Johnson City Mayor David Tomita, a former Washington County commissioner.
“Not everyone on this needs to be political,” Tomita said. “The county approached us some time back about the committee, and we’ve approved our members. The county was waiting until they approved the funding (for site work) before they appoint their members. We are fully prepared to begin talks about a joint venture.”
City Manager Pete Peterson said he is aware the county wants to put together a committee to explore the development of the athletic fields at the site. He also acknowledged Tomita talked about forming a committee a few months ago. However, Peterson said neither Tomita nor County Commission Chair Greg Matherly have talked with him further about it.
“The county has not contacted us about our participation in programming operations or partnering in a sports complex at that site,” Peterson said. “The city definitely is looking to expand its athletic facilities, but it likely will be at an existing site. I’m also aware the Boones Creek K-8 will not have a playground or athletic fields within the acreage approved for the school.
“Since the parcel set aside is not specifically for school purposes, the county will not have to share (maintenance of effort law) money bonded to do the grading or building of a complex. If the function of that land were for school purposes, the county wouldn’t be bonding more than $3 million, they would have to borrow more than $6 million to pay Johnson City its share.”
The land was subdivided from the 57-acre lot on which the new $23.5 million Boones Creek kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school at Highland Church Road and Boones Creek Road will be placed. Money for the athletic complex comes from the social, cultural and recreation projects line item, and is considered a county development unrelated to the school or education. Construction of the facility is currently estimated at $2 million.
County commissioners last week approved a $3.4 million debt issuance for BurWil Construction to perform grading and site development of the county athletic facility and park. The request came from Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge. Its passage authorized the county’s purchasing director to execute a contract with the company, but it does not include facility construction costs.
“The city is looking for options,” said Matherly, who along with Eldridge, is in the process of selecting committee members. “They’ve been in need of additional athletic facilities to use. Their needs may be different than ours, but if we don’t sit down and talk about it, we won’t know where we are. We just need to come to the table. It may not work for Johnson City. The location is not far from Winged Deer Park. So if you wanted to host a large tournament, you could do that.
“Jonesborough has been discussing this, and they’re interested in having someone on the committee. The county folks that will serve on the committee are not set. I have a couple of people I’d still like to talk to. It will be a pretty big task to take on.”
Eldridge and county officials are confident Johnson City will step up and help recruit high-profile users, utilize the city’s experience with tournament programming and partner to reap the benefits of a joint venture. County officials also are welcoming Jonesborough’s participation, as well as the Johnson City Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“When Ridgeview and Grandview schools were built in 2008, they built very large athletic components,” Eldridge said. “But in this case, if we’re going to invest money in these facilities, we need to partner with Johnson City and Joneborough which have the staff and experience.
“If it can be a collaboration that fills everyone’s needs and generates revenue, it’s a successful venture. David Tomita and I have had brief discussions about this, and it’s my understanding the Johnson City Convention and Visitors Bureau will be a conduit and help draw in tournaments and events.”
This spring, Johnson City officials wedged into a passenger van and visited two world-class sports facilities in South Carolina to gather information and apply it to the creation of a new, tournament- and tourism-centric venture.
The demand for local softball and soccer league space has been on the rise for years. Also, reeling in major tournaments that increase tourism, spending and tax revenue in the area is no pipe dream. Organizations are knocking on the door.
But the consensus among city officials is that the undertaking will require private-public partnership to get the job done, and a tax increase is part of the conversation. A combination of the latter is how the South Carolina mega-complexes emerged. Johnson City commissioners, the Johnson City Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Chamber of Commerce and Parks and Recreation officials now know they must seek investment from corporate sponsors, and this will surely be among the topics the new committee fleshes out.
In early 2016, National Association of Sports Commissions Executive Director Donald Schumacher told commissioners that adding 10, 50-team softball tournaments could bring in $6 million a year if at least four new fields are constructed, according to a sports facilities study.
“The ASA (Amateur Softball Association) has a very high opinion of you,” Schumacher told commissioners at the time about the city’s existing and potentially new and upgraded facilities, as well as the desire to visit Johnson City.
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 are the hottest topic, and their locations will come following development of a master plan. But there also has been a surge in interest for soccer, lacrosse, rugby, field hockey and football — thus the need for more rectangular fields.
Last year, city commissioners allocated $400,000 to make improvements to existing parks and facilities, with $100,000 of that earmarked for the development of a master plan that would include an estimated $15 million for a new complex and/or improvements.
“Obviously, there’s a need,” Peterson said. “We need to increase the number of both diamond and rectangle fields. The next steps will be to determine if we want to do diamond, rectangular or both. We need to determine how we might do a public-private partnership, where we might do it and how we expand to fit our needs.”