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Wednesday, 06 February 2013 14:03

Batter up: Macon weighs costs and benefits of proposed recreation complex

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A Macon County commissioner, who prides himself on fiscal conservatism, has been staking out his positions lately.

After questioning the virtue of pay raises for Macon County workers two weeks ago, Commissioner Ron Haven has turned his attention to another proposed outlet of government spending: a large sports complex being considered outside of Franklin.

 

The 50-acre complex would house several baseball fields at its core, rounded out with paved walking trails, basketball courts, soccer fields, picnic areas and restrooms as well. County commissioners voted unanimously to buy the property in November, with the final sale contingent on surveys, engineering and other due diligence.

But the estimated price tag of $1.1 million for the first phase of the ball park has ballooned to $5 million for a full build-out.

Now Haven is having second thoughts. Given the new price tag, he questioned whether it’s too expensive for the county.

“I am supporting the idea, but I’m thinking it’s the wrong timing,” Haven said. “We’ve got to keep our budget as low as possible.”

The county has extended its initial 30-day property option for another four months, with a new deadline of April 15.

The early — and now apparently low-ball — guesswork of $1.1 million for the first phase included the price of the property, two baseball fields, a parking lot and a picnic pavilion.

However, a contracted engineer has now presented lawmakers with a total cost of $5 million for the full project, which would include many more sports fields and features, such as a Frisbee golf course, an expanded playground and nearly $1 million in outdoor lighting and electrical wiring, among other improvements.

Haven was in favor of the initial, dialed down park plan, but a master plan for the park spooked the conservative commissioner.

“We are looking down the barrel of a $5 million project and I’m afraid spending is going to get out of hand,” Haven said.

Haven was also concerned that the actual costs of the project would surpass any estimates — pointing out that commissioners recently paid for $600,000 in outdoor swimming pool renovations, which were expected to cost half that price. The county’s hope of landing a state parks and recreation grant to help cover part of the cost is also not guaranteed, Haven said.

But other county officials were quick to point out that just because the entire project could cost as much as $5 million, that doesn’t mean the county will actually spend that much, at least not all at once.

Commissioner Ronnie Beale said certain items can be prioritized and other facilities added at a future date or never.

“Those were numbers for, ‘if we had all the money in the world, what it would cost?’” Beale said, referring to the $5 million figure. “That’s a pie in the sky, and we might get a brownie in the sky.”

Beale said that commissioners have to balance curtailing spending with providing services and quality of life amenities for residents.

“We don’t want to raise taxes, but we want to provide recreational facilities for the future,” Beale said. “We’ve put very little in recreation over the years.” The last time the county invested money in baseball fields for the general public was 1973.

Likewise, the county could simply buy the property now and wait to start any portion of the project until a later date — but the county should strike while it can, Beale said.

The chances of finding another suitable site in the future, as flat as the proposed one and for such a price, is unlikely, Beale said.

That’s the strategy that Haywood County commissioners took five years ago when a large, flat tract came up for sale that would be ideal for a recreation complex and ballpark. They spent $1 million buying the 22-acre tract, with an eye toward one day building the ball field complex. The county even created a master plan for the site but hasn’t budgeted any money to actually build the complex. Securing the land when it did means it can one day in the future; however, The Haywood commissioners took heat from some constituents over the price tag.

But the youth sports lobby could be a match for those preaching fiscal constraint.

When Macon County commissioners first discussed buying the land for a recreation complex last November, their meeting was packed with Little League and softball organizers and coaches.

County Manager Jack Horton said that the county is not preparing to take out a $5 million loan and fund everything included in the master plan for the park. He said the focus was for the first phase, and the rest would have to be evaluated in the future. The final cost may fall somewhere in between the low price and the high price.

But before commissioners will know if the site is even suitable for a recreational complex, an archeological study must be completed on the 50-acre tract along Cartoogechaye Creek. Archeologically significant findings could halt or alter any development projects.

The engineer working with the county on the site analysis and planning process, Mike Lovoy, said the Cherokee had large villages in the area prior to European arrival, and in 1963, an archeological site, with numerous pottery shards, was found on the tract and documented with the state.

The county is currently paying about $40,000 to have the survey conducted, and it is expected to be completed by the end of the month.

“It’s likely there are artifacts there,” Horton said. “We need to find out to what extent, we need to find out if we can’t use it for what we intended to use it for.”

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