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Recreation committee stresses need for better planning

Published 11:15 am Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Vicksburg Parks and Recreation director Joe Graves discussed the state of the city’s parks and his vision for a multipurpose recreation complex with the ad hoc recreation committee, prompting the members to seek the advice of recreation directors from other cities with modern recreation facilities.

Committee chairman Omar Nelson asked Graves to help contact recreation directors from Southaven, Madison, Clinton and Brandon about meeting with the committee July 7. The request came after a tour of the facilities at City and Halls Ferry Park.

“We need to bring in people who have developed facilities like Southaven and Madison and learn what they did, and see what they can tell us,” he said.

Nelson’s call to meet with other recreation directors followed Graves’ outline of the needs and problems facing Vicksburg’s recreational facilities and programs, including a $1.28 million five-year plan to upgrade and repair the city’s facilities. He said the city needs to keep its present facilities even if it builds a new complex.

“We’re 20 to 30 years behind every city I know of in the state of Mississippi,” Graves told the committee Monday. “I’ve been involved in sports and recreation for more than 50 years, either as a player, or a coach, or a director, and I’ve been all over the state for games and tournaments. I know what people have compared to what we have here. It’s embarrassing.

“In the previous two administrations, we asked and asked for more money, and were told to wait because we would be getting a new complex,” he said. “They never gave us any money to make changes and to make the upgrades that we needed.”

Clinton, he said, just passed a $58 million bond issue for recreation.

He told the committee the recreation department is responsible the operation and maintenance of 25 neighborhood parks as well as the baseball and softball fields at City, Bazinsky and Halls Ferry parks, Catfish Row, and Riverfront Park, which the city co-owns with the county.

“I have seven employees for maintenance, and that goes up to 11 with seasonal employees (in the summer),” he said. Keeping the facilities maintained with that small a crew, Graves said, “it’s an impossible task.”

The 35-year-old Halls Ferry Park, he said, “is getting old. It was built for 200 kids, but they could barely fit 200 people in there when it opened. Now, over 400 kids use the fields.” Most of the wooden light poles at the fields, he said, are old and rotting and need to be replaced.

Parking at the facilities, he said, is limited or non-existent.

According to the city records, the total recreation budget is $1.71million for fiscal 2014, which Graves said must cover the costs of maintenance, and city-sponsored programs like tennis, the Jackson Street Center, adult softball, fall baseball and Little League and adult leagues.

He said the city needs a multipurpose recreation complex that will meet the needs of all residents.

“I don’t want to use the term ‘sports complex,’” he said. “When you talk about a complex, people will say, ‘that’s just for softball and baseball.’ It’s not just for that. It’s for recreation. Something that will have something kids, adults and senior citizens.”

Such a complex, he said would have 20 ball fields — 12 baseball and 8 softball — with 300-foot fences that can be adapted for children or adult games. The fields would be built in clusters with concession stands and adequate restroom facilities and showers for umpires and referees. Also included in the complex would be soccer fields that can be used for flag and junior league football, and nature trails for walking running and cycling, tennis courts and a multipurpose facility for basketball and other indoor sports.

“We could also have an enclosed swimming pool,” he said. “This would need to be carefully planned out.

“A lot of the things they did (for recreation) way back when were not planned well,” he said. “They rushed, and when they rushed, they cut budgets and that hurt everyone.”

The one thing other Mississippi cities with successful recreation programs have had, Graves said, “is the support of the community. Everyone was on board. Everyone has to be on the same page.”

His comment influenced Nelson to recommend the committee get a petition supporting a multipurpose recreation complex to be signed by residents, and to get letters of support from local businesses.

“When we present our report to the board in December, we’ll present the petition and the letters of support to show that it’s not just the committee’s recommendation but the community’s recommendation,” he said. “It will show we’re all on the same page.”

The committee also planned to hold public hearings on recreation in September to get ideas from residents.

Graves told the committee they will meet with some opposition as they go through their hearings.

“You’ve got a lot of people who don’t want change, but the majority of the people will support this,” he said. “You want to help the majority, but you’re going to have a small group who won’t be happy with anything you do.”

The committee was appointed in May by the Board of Mayor and Aldermen to examine the city’s recreation programs and present recommendations to improve the overall program over the next five years by Dec. 31.

The committee first met on June 5, and began discussions that indicated a move toward a multipurpose recreation complex, marking the third time a recreation complex for the city has been discussed.

In 2003, the city bought the 200-acre Fisher Ferry Road property near St. Michael Catholic Church for a sports complex for $325,000. The project was abandoned in 2009 after an additional $2.7 million had been spent for preliminary plans, engineering and dirt work. The city has spent $55,343 since August 2012 to replace the concrete in the drainage chutes on the site with riprap and grout under a Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality mandate. The board in March put the property up for sale for a 90-day period. Information about any possible interest was unavailable. Former mayor Paul Winfield in 2012 promoted an estimated $20 million sports complex funded by a half-cent sales tax. Flaggs, who was a state legislator at the time and had a hand in bringing a potential tax increase to a vote, opposed the project because it had there were too many uncertainties with the project. The project died when the chairman of the House Local and Private Committee refused to introduce the bill.