Public views plans for new recreation complex

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 16, 2011

NATCHEZ — A large crowd of close to 100 steadily weaved its way through the Natchez Grand Hotel ballroom Tuesday for a peek into the future vision of recreation for Natchez-Adams County.

The Natchez-Adams Recreation Commission hosted a public forum to show off a series of proposed plans for facilities at the bean field near Natchez High School and updated facilities Duncan Park.

Some of the colorful renderings propped on easels included plans for phase one, which would cost approximately $5.4 million, and others proposed a master plan, which would take more money and time to build after the completion of phase one.

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Many residents and leaders who attended were enthusiastic about what they saw. Some wanted answers about the availability of funding to make the drawings a reality.

“I think it’s great,” Sarah Salmon said. “(Natchez-Adams County) should have had this years ago.”

Salmon said she attended the forum because she wanted to see the drawings of the proposed facilities.

She said she has seen what recreation has done for Laurel, and she believes a new complex would attract lots of out-of-towners for sports tournaments.

“If we have the facilities then the people will come,” Salmon said.

Resident Burnley Cook said he is invested in recreation but has issues with using tax dollars for new facilities.

Cook said he came to the forum to see “what was going on” and to get some of his questions answered.

His questions included how the county is going to pay off the cost of the complexes, how long it would take to pay it off and how recreation would impact the area economically.

“We hear a lot about expenses, but I want to know more figures about income,” Burnley said.

He wants to know how much money the complex is projected to make, not just about the expense of building it, in order to make an informed opinion.

Cook said he also worried why — if recreation is ultimately profitable — the private sector has not invested in it.

“I hate to say it, but who’s going to get stuck with the bill,” Cook asked.

Cook he was, however, impressed with the plans.

“I think (the renderings) are fantastic. We would be just top rate, but it’s a question of funding.”

Cook said he would like as much information about the project as possible to help determine if he supports funding recreation during these tough economic times.

The informal forum did not include a question and answer session, but comment and question forms were available to fill out for the commission to review.

Whit Alexander from Lose & Associates, who was hired as the projects landscape architect, said the plans for phase one were designed for expansion.

Phase one will be fully functional on its own, Alexander said.

Phase one includes a new adult softball field, four youth baseball fields, a swimming pool, a large concession building, a shade pavilion, trail network, batting cage complex and a lake near the bean field. Existing softball fields will also receive renovations in the plans. Phase one also includes two new tennis courts, new restrooms, parking and a renovated pro shop at Duncan Park.

The master plan, which could be completed with a series of future phases with funds beyond the original $5.4 million includes a teen area with a skate park, one full basketball court, two half basketball courts, a vending building, a trail network, renovations of three softball fields and new parking at the bean field, as well as more updates at Duncan Park.

Alexander said Lose & Associates is based out of Georgia and designs sports complexes around the Southeast, and that Natchez-Adams County is not alone in trying to fund recreation at this time.

“I’ve worked with communities all over who are thinking (about recreation) in terms of an economic development tool,” Alexander said.

Alexander said everywhere he has worked, in small communities and large ones, the complexes were able to attract tourism through recreation facilities.

Alexander gave Waycross, Ga., the county seat of Ware County, as a comparable example to Natchez-Adams County.

Waycross is a town in a rural area that has approximately half the population of Ware County, which has 30,000 residents. Alexander said his company designed a 10-baseball field complex eight years ago, and the complex has been booked every weekend in the summer since it opened.

Mayor Jake Middleton said he was impressed with the plans and that recreation is overdue in Natchez.

“(Recreation) is as important as industry, and its good for the citizens as well,” Middleton said.

Middleton said Laurel generated $3 million in 2009 by hosting the Dixie Youth World Series using its recreation complexes.

Middleton said support shown recreation by the non-binding referendum passed in 2009 also emphasizes the importance of moving forward.

“When you get 78 percent (of the vote), you better put in a complex and find a way to do it,” Middleton said.

Natchez Grand Hotel and Natchez Convention Center Manager Walter Tipton said a recreation complex would benefit the Grand Hotel and other hotels in Natchez and Vidalia.

“It is going to do great things, especially for the summer months,” Tipton said.

Tipton said summer is normally an average time of the year for the Grand Hotel — not slow and not overwhelming.

Natchez-Adams School District Security Supervisor Ray Brown, who is on the recreation commission, said the complex would be great for the local children and that it would help promote remedies to the area’s obesity issues.

“There’s something for everybody,” Brown said.

Recreation commission member David Carter said the large turnout gave evidence of support for recreation.

Carter said the commission would review suggestions and comments and brainstorm how to incorporate some of the better suggestions in its next meeting.

City and county leaders will meet with the commission in April to discuss the current plans and the next step in the project.