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County, rec board setting sights on new central park
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Effingham County officials are setting their sights on building another Sand Hill Park-type complex closer to the center of the county, after a joint workshop Tuesday between county commissioners and recreation board members.

Commissioners will attempt to purchase a 71-acre tract off Highway 21 just south of Springfield to put in a new park, which would be more centrally-located in the county and could serve a greater number of people than the current complex off Highway 119 in Springfield.

“A centralized recreation facility would make a lot of sense for Effingham County, based on what we have seen so far,” said Patrick Graham of CHA Sports.

CHA Sports, which has been commissioned to conduct a study and develop a master plan for the county’s recreational system, conducted the workshop. They reviewed the existing facilities and projected what the county needs in the future.

A dream central park would start with five baseball/softball fields, a soccer field and a football field.

“And at least that many more, with adequate parking and restrooms,” Effingham County Recreation and Parks director Clarence Morgan said of future needs.

He also said the county needs a first-class handicap-accessible playground.

Commission Chairman Wendall Kessler said he was concerned the Highway 119 complex wasn’t big enough to warrant spending more than $1 million in improvements. The county has attempted to acquire property in order to expand it but has not been successful, and the tract they have looked at may not be large enough, commissioners and rec board members said.

“I want to be sure the money we spend is spent wisely and gets us to where we need to be today and fills our needs for the years to come,” Kessler said.

Current facilities stretched
Effingham County’s existing fields need work, and rec board member Craig Johnson asked how much money from the $1.7 million originally slated for the 119 complex could be directed for upkeep and maintenance at the current parks.

“There hasn’t been a lot of money spent out of SPLOST for recreation because we want the ‘wow’ factor,” he said.

Constant play and practices have chewed up the ECRP’s fields, and they need improvement, Graham said.

“The fields that you have and the gym facilities that you have are being used year-round,” he said, “particularly the outdoor ball fields. They are not getting a lot of rest, which is tough on a field.”

Fields need water, sunlight and rest, Morgan pointed out, and he tries to prohibit activity on the rec department’s fields for about a month a year. But the demand for their availability, from the ECRP’s own teams and leagues and local travel teams, makes that difficult, he acknowledged.

“The existing fields need some TLC. There are a number of fields that need new sod and need some real work,” Graham said.

The survey CHA Sports disseminated to the rec board and commissioners revealed a lack of playing and practice facilities and inadequate parking.

“If you put all our facilities together, we have zero adequate parking,” Morgan said. “We have spent zero money on parking since 1975, when the rec department started.”

Said rec board member Mike Wilson: “We’ve always operated under the assumption that dollars were tight for recreation.”

Morgan added that recreation projects have been a selling point for past SPLOST votes and having a large central facility could help push the vote to an affirmative.

“We have saved over the years,” Morgan said. “Rec has not taken a big chunk of SPLOST. We have piecemealed for years.”

The ECRP is still one of the largest, in terms of participation, in the state, Morgan said. The longtime ECRP director also said the rec board has been pushing for a new gym for five years.

Should a new, central park be approved and funded, the ECRP’s complex on Highway 119 in Springfield would remain in use, with the fields there used for practice.

A SPLOST project
Commissioners and rec board members also want to put the project up for funding through the next special purpose local option sales tax vote. The SPLOST is up for a five-year renewal next year. The most recent SPLOST was passed in 2010 and went into effect in 2012.

“The timing is right to plan smartly for the upcoming SPLOST,” said Commissioner Vera Jones. “If we want to do something big for recreation, we need to get it proposed and ready for the next SPLOST. I think citizens are willing to put their money toward public safety, roads and recreation.”

A district park, which CHA Sports calls a large park along the lines of the ECRP’s Sand Hill facility, is usually about 50 acres. Sand Hill Park is 72 acres, while the Highway 119 complex is 20 acres and Baker Park is 30 acres, with a 20-acre pond.

The tract the county is considering is as far north as they need to for a new park, Jones said.

“It’s a good central location,” she said, “that would serve the majority of people. Whether they go to Sand Hill or they go to Springfield, I think there are thousands and thousands of voters who feel they have to go too far.”

Kessler also discussed that having a large central park that attracts tournaments means having more people in the county — and there needs to be opportunities for them to spend their money at hotels and restaurants.

“Recreation can be a facilitator for tourism and growth,” he said. “If we can spend money wisely and create a nice facility that creates these tournaments and create these needs, then I think we are going down the right road.”

Kessler also endorsed having something akin to Richmond Hill’s J.F. Gregory Park as part of the plan for Effingham’s proposed facility.

“If I could incorporate something like that into this, that would be a plus,” he said.

Commissioners could vote on a potential purchase and plan at their Oct. 21 meeting, and preliminary master plans for county recreation will be part of a public meeting.

“I think in the end, we’ll have a better project,” Kessler said.