Calling it an “historic day,” Effingham County officials turned the first shovels of dirt for the planned central recreation complex Friday afternoon.
Work on the first phase of the project is expected to start soon, county commission Chairman Wendall Kessler and Effingham County Recreation and Parks Director Clarence Morgan said.
“The ceremony today is a great step on a great path of achieving one of our many goals,” Kessler said. “This is progress for Effingham. This is the culmination of a lot of hard work, a lot of hours, a lot of people have sacrificed a lot of time and effort, all for the betterment of our kids.”
Commissioners approved at their meeting Tuesday a contract with CHA for final design services of the rec complex, which will be built on 120 acres off Highway 21 and Ralph Rahn Road.
“I can assure when it’s over with, it will be the most beautiful piece of property in the state of Georgia,” said King Evans, senior partner at CHA. We can’t wait to get started and when it’s over, it will be a showcase.”
The discussions on a central rec complex started after commissioners weighed spending money to improve the existing facility on Highway 119.
“We were fixing to spend some two-and-a-half million dollars on a piece of a property we own to enhance some ball fields,” Kessler said. “We would have been spending good money on fields that were still going to be inadequate and would have not served us for a very long time. We still would not have had parking and we would not have been able to enlarge it. So we started looking.”
The first phase will have baseball and softball fields, with two 335-foot fields and three 325-foot fields. There also will be a support building with concessions and a restroom and the park also will include an Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant playground. Also on the drawing board is a gymnasium with two basketball courts.
“We will build this park the right way,” Morgan said.
County officials originally looked at improvements and enhancements to the park on Highway 119 in Springfield. Renovating the gymnasium there had been a topic of discussion. Improving those facilities carried a $1.7 million price tag.
But commissioners wondered if spending that much money on a facility that could not be expanded was a worthwhile investment. Efforts to buy additional land adjoining the 119 complex so it could be enlarged.
“We were landlocked and we didn’t know this was an option,” Morgan said. “It took a group of people to see that we were landlocked out there. We didn’t have enough parking. We weren’t going to be able to grow. This needed to be a bigger complex. We play five nights a week.”
CHA Sports was commissioned to do a study of the county’s recreational system, and after a September 2014 workshop, commissioners and rec board members started eyeing a central rec complex. The county bought approximately 76 acres along Highway 21 in December 2014 and followed that with more than 40 acres along Ralph Rahn Road in January 2015.
“We went into a workshop looking at expanding Highway 119 and left there looking at purchasing property for a mega-complex,” said longtime county recreation board member Craig Johnson.
CHA Sports and Hussey, Gay and Bell engineers were awarded a contract for architectural and engineering services for Highway 119 improvements in May 2014. CHA Sports also was asked to submit a scope of work and a 15-year plan for a capital improvement program.
From the January 2015 recreation master plan, CHA Sports estimated costs for the first phase of five baseball/softball fields, batting cages, gym, parking, support and maintenance buildings and other development at more than $6.3 million. A second phase of covered bleachers, four more baseball/softball fields and football and soccer fields was projected at nearly $5.9 million. The third phase — additional concessions and restrooms, football and soccer fields, parking and a picnic pavilion — was estimated at $2.9 million.
“Today is a wonderful day,” Kessler said. “We have a good commission in place that is willing to think down the road. It’s a lot of money we’re putting out there but if you look at the future, we’re still behind the curve. Our spending has not kept up with the population growth. We’re basically playing catch-up.”
The plans call for the park to be built in three phases. The first phase will include two 335-foot baseball fields, three 325-foot fields, sports lighting, batting cages, covered bleachers, a field support building that will include concessions and a restroom, and a picnic pavilion. There also will be a gymnasium.
Future phases are expected to add football and soccer fields, more softball and baseball fields and a walking trail.
“I’d like to thank all the people who came to our workshops and gave their input,” said Commissioner Jamie Deloach. “I think we’ve done a pretty good job of listening. One of the things we heard was walking trails. That’s included in the design and we’re excited about that.”
Commissioners have approved a contract with CHA Sports for final design of the central rec complex for $193,400, with civil engineering design being tasked to county staff.
While county officials are anxious to get started turning dirt for more pragmatic purposes rather than Friday’s ceremonial display, actual work will commence after final construction documents are approved.
“We’ve been hoping for this groundbreaking for six to eight months,” Morgan said. “But they didn’t want the groundbreaking until they were ready to start.”
Commissioners surplused a small section of the property, 1.25 acres, for potential commercial development in November. They have received a bid on the land
The park and the land are a result of previous approvals of the one-cent special local option sales tax. Kessler said he hoped the coming complex will lead Effingham voters to renew the SPLOST when it comes up on the ballot in November.
“This is a wonderful opportunity and we have a lot of people to thank,” the chairman said, “the people who support our SPLOST referendum, which is coming up again this year, I hope they will support it so we can build phase 1 and continue to build phase 2 and phase 3.”
County leaders are hoping voters pass the SPLOST this November — and hope having the rec complex as one of the projects to be funded through SPLOST will encourage residents to vote in support of the measure.
“I want to reiterate thank you, thank you, thank you to the past voters for the past SPLOST referendum,” Deloach added, “and keep days like this in mind when voting for SPLOST. We can do great things with that money.”
Johnson also expressed his gratitude and his happiness on the imminent inception of work. Johnson also thanked the previous and current members of the rec board for their efforts.
“I’m ecstatic,” he said. “It was a long time coming. At certain times, we didn’t think it was going to come true. But it’s here. We’ve started. We’ve got plans. We’re moving forward. It’s a great day. I’m looking forward to many years of good times. The 40-year anniversary (of the ECRP) just happened and we’re breaking ground on a mega-complex … it doesn’t get any better than this.”