It may be a while before shovels start turning dirt into ball fields, but Effingham County has taken a necessary big step toward its next recreation facility.
County commission Chairman Wendall Kessler signed the documents Wednesday closing the deal with the Bank of Newington for 76.89 acres off Highway 21 between Rincon and Springfield.
“I never thought this would happen,” said an elated and appreciative Effingham County Recreation and Parks director Clarence Morgan. “It’s one of the best days in the history of Effingham County recreation.”
The bank, in turn, donated $10,000 to the county for a scoreboard at the planned recreation complex. The bank also is reserving one acre for future use, possibly a small branch or an automated teller machine. The county paid $900,000 for the 75.89-acre total, and the bank actually took a loss on the land, Kessler pointed out.
“They are a very real partner with us in getting this done,” he said.
Bank of Newington president Harry Sheppard and vice president Tripp Sheppard acknowledged how much business their firm has done in Effingham over the years.
“Effingham County has been good to us,” Tripp Sheppard said.
A final master plan for the property is close to being completed, Morgan and Kessler said. The county also is in discussions to buy two adjoining parcels that would stretch the land available for the recreation complex to Ralph Rahn Road. The other two tracts, about 42 acres in all, will take the land for the complex to nearly 118 acres, if commissioners approve the purchase. Kessler said he intends to put the issue before his fellow commissioners at their Jan. 6 meeting.
“Number one, we’ve got to acquire other pieces of property,” Kessler said. “If the board approves, they’ll close by the end of January. Then we’ll know the footprint of the property and we can finalize our master plan. In conjunction with this, we’ll have a very fine facility.”
Since the county first broached its plans to buy the property off Highway 21, Morgan and Kessler said the reaction they’ve gotten has been overwhelmingly positive.
“The important thing is I have had people stop me on the street and say this is a good thing,” Kessler said. “I think it’s a catalyst for good things.”
Said Morgan: “People you don’t think know anything about recreation come up and say what a good thing this is. With these two tracts, more can be done.”
The first phase likely will include five baseball/softball fields and a gymnasium, Morgan said. Once it’s built, the central recreation complex will take the place of the ECRP’s oldest facility on Highway 119. The 119 complex will remain in use for practices.
County officials hope they can attract large tournaments, bringing in more visitors to Effingham.
“We want this to be a tournament destination,” Kessler said. “This is going to be a catalyst for growth.”
The main purpose for the complex, though, will be games in ECRP leagues. CHA Sports and the county have been working on a master plan that could eventually include more than a dozen baseball and softball fields, covered and lighted batting cages, two soccer and two football fields, picnic pavilions, restrooms, concessions, parking and an American with Disabilities Act-compliant playground.
The key to making all those items come to fruition, however, will be the passage of another special purpose local option sales tax. The next SPLOST could come up for a vote in March 2016, and Morgan believes having the central recreation complex on the ballot could persuade voters to back a renewal of SPLOST.
“Recreation has helped pass SPLOST,” he said. “It’s something they can benefit from, and their kids and grandkids can benefit from.”
“They see things are going to happen,” Kessler said. “This is long overdue.”
The chairman didn’t say work on the tracts will begin as soon as the county takes possession of all the land it has in its sights. But he averred the land won’t be idle for long.
“You’re going to see movement,” he declared. “I can’t tell you how much. We don’t intend to acquire the property and let it sit there for three years.”