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County to buy land for central park complex
$900K purchase opens way for facility off Highway 21 just south of Springfield
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Effingham County commissioners took a big step last Tuesday night toward building a central recreation park.

Commissioners, in a 3-0 vote, approved spending $900,000 to purchase 75.89 acres, with plans to build a large central recreation complex on the property. Known as the Neidlinger tract, the land is adjacent to Highway 21 just south of Springfield.

CHA Sports, contracted by the county to develop a recreation master plan and 10-year projection for recreation needs and issues, identified the central park as a vital project.

“We are pleased with the vote and ready to move forward,” said Craig Johnson, chairman of the county recreation board. “We are glad we have gotten over this hurdle and we can have a park in a centralized location.”

The county’s park off Highway 119 is inadequate for future needs, County Administrator Toss Allen said. The county has looked at purchasing adjacent land to expand that park but has been unable to push that through. The search for property sizable enough for baseball, softball, football and soccer fields and parking ensued. Target tracts also were judged for their access to transportation and for available infrastructure, such as water and sewer.

“This is a clean piece of property,” Allen said.

Commission Chairman Wendall Kessler negotiated a final price of $900,000 with the Bank of Newington, the tract’s owner. The property is actually two tracts, one of five acres and an adjoining 71.89 acres. The bank, Kessler said, asked to retain one acre in order to put up a branch or an automated teller machine.

“The rec board feels this is the best location and the best way to invest our funds,” Kessler said.

Commissioners and rec board members also weighed whether to engage the Effingham Industrial Development Authority about a deal for some its Research Forest Tract land.

IDA members have looked at potential recreational uses on the nearly 2,700-acre Research Forest Tract. They visited Chain of Lakes Park in Titusville, Fla., five years ago to see how retention ponds there were re-developed into recreational outlets. Earlier master plan revisions of Research Forest Tract had nearly 450 acres identified as possible recreational areas.

Allen said IDA CEO John Henry told him land on the Research Forest Tract could be made available and the IDA would be willing to work on the cost. But Allen estimated the cost at approximately $500,000 to clear the timber and build a road into the parcel that would be available.

“The purchase price for this is comparable to what we’d have to spend on the IDA land,” Commissioner Vera Jones said of the Neidlinger tract.

Added Kessler: “I believe this property is located in a much better place and is a much better place when you consider the wetlands and the clearing for the roads.”

A survey of the Effingham County Recreation and Parks’ clientele revealed more than three-fourths come from Springfield, Guyton, Clyo and other areas farther away from the Research Forest Tract.

The recreation master plan calls for the central park to start with five baseball and softball fields, four covered and lighted batting cages, covered bleachers, three picnic pavilions, one football field, one soccer field and an American with Disabilities Act-compliant playground. More softball and baseball fields and an additional football field and soccer field are part of future expansion plans.

The central park also will not mean the end of the county’s existing facilities at 119 or Sand Hill Park, Johnson reiterated. The Highway 119 complex would be used for practices.

Funding for the parks’ fields and facilities would come from the next round of the special purpose local option sales tax, if voters approve it. Kessler has said he hopes the prospect of a large central park will encourage voters to pass the next SPLOST.

Johnson pointed out the central recreation park’s main use will be for the county’s citizens on a regular basis, though it also could allow the county to host more tournaments.

Commissioner Phil Kieffer recused himself from the discussion and the vote, citing family members with interest in adjoining property. Commissioner Steve Mason was not at the meeting.