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County, ECRP ready to move on master plan
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Effingham County commissioners could shape the future of the county’s recreation for the coming decade and more at their next meeting.

Commissioners, with members of the county recreation board in the audience, held a workshop to delve into plans to upgrade the existing parks and add a large, central park to the county’s repertoire. The proposed centralized park drew support from rec board members and recreation supporters.

“But if you will build it, they will come,” said longtime recreation coach Deirdre Ford. “I do not know about building, but I do know about kids. Having proper areas for them to play ball is one way to get them to do what we need them to do, working as a team and learning about life and doing something that’s positive. I’m ready to get started.”

The county has been looking at a piece of land between Springfield and Rincon alongside Highway 21 that officials believe will be big enough to accommodate the centralized park and its planned upgrades. ECRP director Clarence Morgan supported the location, noting its access to a four-lane highway and the existing infrastructure.

“We don’t have to do site work, which would be millions of dollars,” he said.

Commission Chairman Wendall Kessler also believes the Highway 21 central park will be more than a recreational outlet for the community.

“The piece of property we are looking at will serve us beyond recreation,” Kessler said. “I think it will be a catalyst for some good growth.”

Phases to improve the parks
Master plan developers CHA Sports recommend a 10-step first phase to improve the existing Sand Hill and Springfield parks. Among the items to be done between 2014-17 are replacing the septic drainfield at Sand Hill, repair and refinish the Central Learning Center gym floor, install netting for backstops and build covered and lighted batting cages at Sand Hill, install signage and landscaping at Sand Hill, renovate existing restrooms and concessions areas at the 119 facility and install lightning detection and warning systems at both parks.

Morgan said they have hand-held lightning detection systems at both parks and the system they want to purchase is between $5,000 and $6,000 for each park.

“Phase 1 won’t make Sand Hill platinum,” the longtime ECRP director said, “but it will make it gold. “These upgrades will get it up to snuff for many years to come.”

Morgan said there is room for four or five more fields at Sand Hill, and he added that the department’s participation is on the rise again. Though most of the parks are in the southern half of the county, where most of the county’s population is, nearly 60 percent of the ECRP’s users come from Springfield, Guyton, Clyo, Shawnee and Kildare, Morgan said. Rincon’s recreation department helps serve those county residents closer to that city.

The second phase, which will run from 2017-22 and is dependent upon future SPLOST receipts for funding, involves the central park. On its wish list are five baseball and softball fields, four covered and lighted batting cages, one football field, one soccer field, three picnic pavilions, restrooms and concessions at all field complexes, parking for 450, a maintenance building and a large playground that is Americans with Disabilities Act compliant.

A third phase, to go into effect from 2022-24, would expand the new central park. Under the third phase, the planned central park would get three more softball and baseball fields, all with covered bleachers, an additional soccer field and an additional football field. There also would be more parking and it would have a community center with meeting rooms and a kitchen. It also would be built with SPLOST funds.

Morgan said the rec board went through all phases extensively and eliminated some things off the project lists. Not making the cut were proposed items such as a splash pad, a skateboard park and a dog park.

“I give the rec board a lot of credit,” said King Evans of CHA Sports. “They moved a lot of stuff to make the money work.”

Though Sand Hill has the capacity to host tournaments, there aren’t any nearby amenities, which drives people to western Chatham County once play is finished.

“We’re always having to drive out of town to play in these tournaments,” said David Keller.

Kessler said they have looked at other possible locations for the centralized park. Those other sites were either not large enough or the price tag was too high, he said.

“This is the largest site we’ve looked at,” he said. “We’ve looked at others that are 38 acres, 40 something, some that didn’t want to sell, others that are exorbitant in price.”

Needs for improvement
The county has looked at expanding the park on Highway 119 for a long time but to no avail. Once it is improved, it will become an area for practices.

Patrick Graham of CHA Sports pointed out that the rec department’s field are heavily used and have a little opportunity to recover from the activity.

The funding for maintenance has been on the low side, compared to national standards. That has hampered upkeep of some of the facilities.

“Our facilities have been in terrible shape for years,” said Wade Johnson.

Eventually, the Highway 119 facility will be used for practice, and the county was on the cusp of spending $2 million to upgrade and enlarge that park, which sits on about 20 acres.

“You really need more fields,” Graham said. “We looked at expanding the 119 park. Even with some potential options of additional land, it just wasn’t large enough. To get to the level to where you have adequate fields for competition and have fields that would allow you to have more tournaments, we need to start looking at a new centralized park.”

The Effingham Industrial Development Authority, in discussions about a master plan for its 2,600-acre Research Forest Tract, discussed setting some of the property aside for recreational uses. Preliminary master plans, drawn up several years ago, had nearly 320 acres reserved for nature trails and other recreational uses.

But Commissioner Vera Jones said the IDA may have an opportunity to sell the entire tract to a prospect, quelling the possibility of any recreation facilities, either passive or active, being constructed there.

CHA Sports also recommended better and more frequent signage for the county parks and also espoused the need for parking. Graham also recommended more bicycle paths and trails.

While the proposed central park will be built with SPLOST funds, commissioners and rec officials also hope having the park as part of the project list will help sway voters to approve the next round of SPLOST.

“What I don’t want to do is acquire a piece of property and wait for another SPLOST, then the public not approve another SPLOST, and we’re stuck with another piece of property,” cautioned Kessler.

Kessler said the recreation master plans could help convince voters on the next special purpose local option sales tax referendum, showing them that they are getting something for the penny tax. The last SPLOST was approved in November 2010, and it listed as much as $4 million for recreation.

“I know y’all have been promised things a long time, and they never happened,” Kessler said to recreation board members and others involved in recreation. “It will not be an empty promise to the public or to this board.”