Culkin group in talks with developers of complex|[10/12/07]

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 12, 2007

Leaders of a Warren County private youth baseball association are in talks with backers of the proposed $40 million sports complex at Halls Ferry Park about a possible lease or other mutually beneficial deal.

Members of the 10-person board of the Culkin Athletic Association have met “a number of times” with the Aquila Group about finding ways to accommodate their games on the 66 acres being studied, said association president Rick Smith during a Thursday meeting of Warren County supervisors, Aquila members and Warren County Parks and Recreation commissioners.

“Our association is fully behind some type of of partnership with the organization,” Smith said, adding the talks were initiated by the association in an attempt to head off defections by parents to city-maintained programs.

Email newsletter signup

Sign up for The Vicksburg Post's free newsletters

Check which newsletters you would like to receive
  • Vicksburg News: Sent daily at 5 am
  • Vicksburg Sports: Sent daily at 10 am
  • Vicksburg Living: Sent on 15th of each month

Prime among reasons, he said, was the burden of maintaining the fields and grounds falling on the private sector, usually parents.

“We’ve seen a decline in our numbers in recent years,” Smith said, adding breaking the group’s ties with the county government was a “long-range goal” and so was the vision of Aquila maintaining the Culkin ball fields.

Parks and Recreation board members at the session indicated the Culkin leaders should have come to them first.

“We’re left out of the loop,” said chairman Ken Bufkin. “Had the chain of command been followed, we’d be well down the road.”

Specifics on any lease agreement remain undecided, but Aquila officials said there would be no cost to parents with children who play baseball at Culkin-maintained fields near the former elementary school at Culkin and Mount Alban roads.

Contracts which financially bind a board cannot be entered into during the final six months of an administration, which is the case with supervisors, except in cases where blessed by the state as being in the public’s best interest. A recent example is the construction contract to renovate the Clay Street building for the new emergency dispatch center. New county terms start Jan. 1.

Due to that limitation, supervisors mostly listened while Bufkin and others sought assurances from Aquila about financing and the scope of its baseball operations.

“Aquila will not be running rec leagues,” said Diane Switzer, chief financial officer for Aquila, who said later Thursday the group plans a public program 6 p.m. on Oct. 23 at the Warren Central High School cafeteria aimed at answering questions about the project.

Florida-based USA Sports Partners Alliance was given a 90-day extension Sept. 17 by Vicksburg officials to complete a feasibility study, funded by a $250,000 city grant. Switzer said the study to identify funding sources was nearing completion well in advance of the December deadline. The group is to return the $250,000 if it concludes the project won’t work.

Also, USASPA will determine whether Vicksburg can support the complex it proposes.

Vicksburg officials have said the land at Halls Ferry Park will be sold to the complex’s management company for a small fee. South Ward Alderman Sid Beauman, former city parks and recreation director, is an enthusiastic supporter of the idea which, in essence, privatizes city recreation programs.

The latest plans include a welcome center, chapel, indoor soccer fields, retractable fencing for handicapped-accessible play and a lodge with condos and hotel rooms. Tennis courts will be preserved as a part of the complex, its exact location undetermined.

“The goal here is to promote healthy kids and healthy families,” said Good Samaritan Physical Therapy owner Tammy Davenport, who heads Aquila. “We think we can combine our for-profit concept with (recreational baseball).”

During talks and after, parks and recreation members said tournaments will drive the complex’s financial stability and hurt other youth leagues.

“Our interest is for the kids,” said commissioner Jimmy Harris. “Money drives this, regardless of what we say. The only way to recoup your money is through tournaments.”

In its operating budget for 2007-08, Warren County allocated $220,000 to parks and recreation. It included extra funds to install a new irrigation system at Clear Creek golf course at Bovina. Other items, such as renovating the back nine at the course and new lighting and parking lot improvements at Culkin fields were part of a long-range plan submitted to supervisors but put on hold.