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County approves recreation master plan
Proposed large central park facility is centerpiece of 15-year outlook
0128 central park plan
A look at how the central park facility proposed for land off Highway 21 and Ralph Rahn Road might be laid out. The phases call for nine baseball and softball fields, a gymnasium and soccer and football fields, along with parking and playgrounds.

With the land in hand to build a large, central recreation facility, the Effingham County commissioners also have signed off on a 15-year master plan for the county’s recreation needs.

CHA Sports presented the master plan, which has been under development by the recreation board and county officials, and the new central park is at the core of its recommendations.

“I’m as happy as we can be,” said commission Chairman Wendall Kessler.

The county has acquired nearly 120 acres, at a cost of approximately $1.26 million, for the planned rec complex.

“The recommendations are focused on a new centralized park,” said Patrick Graham, CHA Sports project development manager. “That synchs in well with the three parcels you bought. We’ve got a great location. Now we’ve got a plan to develop that parcel.”

The plans for the large, central park, to be built between Highway 21 and Ralph Rahn Road on more than 100 acres, call for three different phases. The first phase includes a five-field pinwheel design for two large baseball fields and three smaller fields. There also will be lighting, batting cages, and a central building to serve as a pressbox/concession/restroom structure.

A maintenance building, lightning-warning system, two-court gymnasium and centrally-located playground that is Americans with Disabilities Act-accessible also are part of the first phase.

The original estimate for the first phase was $6.3 million, but a Georgia Power program for the lights could shave $500,000 off the cost.

“One of the big cost items in phase 1 is sports lighting,” Graham said. “That in itself is $600,000. There is a program through Georgia Power to essentially finance that part and Georgia Power will maintain the lighting and do all the maintenance. It’s a great program. A lot of our county recreation clients use that program.”

In phase 2, another pinwheel design of four fields, all 225 feet in length, will be added. There also will be one soccer field and one football field, plus more batting cages, for a total cost of $5.8 million in the second phase. The third phase, at a projected $2.5 million, is recommended to include two more football and soccer fields and another concession/restroom building. Parking also is included in the phases, and a total of three picnic pavilions are in the plans for the last two phases.

Among the wish list items for the first phase are a dog park, skate park, walking trail and splash pad.

CHA Sports started with an inventory and analysis of the rec department’s existing facilities. The firm did a needs assessment and compared Effingham’s facilities against state standards to formulate recommendations.

What SPLOST can do
Commissioners are hopeful another round of special purpose local option sales tax will provide the money needed to establish the central park. In the current SPLOST projects, according to the master plan, there are nearly $2.7 million devoted to recreation projects, including $1.75 for gym and ballfield renovations at the Highway 119 facility. There is $477,000 allotted to land acquisition to expand the 119 complex.

The master plan’s assessment found that the 119 complex has its share of plusses — a central location, fenced and lighted fields, and the playground and gym floor are in good shape, along with its share of drawbacks. The fields need work, the stands are old and worn, the gym building needs maintenance and there aren’t enough fields to keep up with demand.

Expanding the park at Highway 119 is difficult, and there was concern that spending nearly $2 million on the facility may not meet the county’s needs. Should the central park be built, the 119 complex would be used, but more than likely solely for practices.

“We would need to make a decision on our current improvements,” said county community relations director Adam Kobek. “We believe those could be postponed so we could move forward with phase 1.”

Said Kessler: “I didn’t envision us being able to start this at this level. If we can go ahead and start this, we’re not going to be needing to start spending money on some of these existing facilities.”

The layout for the park and its anticipated amenities could be amended and adjusted.

“Things will change,” Kobek said.

“There is definite flexibility,” Graham said. “When we do the site master plan, and we hope to help you with that, is to do a programming workshop that would really get into the details. There is room for flexibility as to where items are and what the items are.

“It’s a really nice complex. It’s a good place to start, some place you can begin to build on for the future.”

Effingham’s population, pegged at 37,535 for the 2000 census, is projected to hit 71,000 by 2025.

The original discussions for the central park were based on a 76-acre parcel alongside Highway 21. The additional two tracts allow for more options in designing the final complex.

“It gives us more land to work with and move things around and place things strategically,” Graham said. “The next step would be to look at total site and do a specific site master plan.”

CHA Sports was contracted in July to develop a 10-year recreation master plan, which became the 15-year plan presented to and adopted by commissioners. A site master plan for the central complex is the next order of business, and Graham told commissioners his firm would like to take that on. He said the firm has enjoyed working with the county, the recreation board and ECRP director Clarence Morgan and his staff.

“It’s been a fantastic experience,” he said. “We would love to keep working with you on this.”

Kessler commended CHA Sports on the time and energy they have directed toward the rec master plan.

“I have been very happy with the product y’all have come forward with,” he said. “I would hate to change horses. I think y’all have been very helpful and have worked well with our changing environment.”

Graham said his projected budget includes both hard costs, such as construction, and soft costs, such as engineering and design.

“Our number is even less than we originally thought,” he said.

Commissioner Vera Jones sounded eager to begin work.

“We bought the land,” she said. “We better get started.”