DEQ delay: Momentum builds for Aquila sports complex|[10/26/07]

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 26, 2007

A pending feasibility study is a formality, but Vicksburg will have to wait until January before turning over the current Halls Ferry Park and Bazinsky Field to the local, private group determined to convert the land into a $40 million youth sports complex, South Ward Alderman Sid Beauman said Thursday.

Construction will not be allowed, he said, before inspection reports by the state Department of Environmental Quality are completed.

The second phase of those studies is being done on the 66 acres, home to city-run youth softball and baseball fields, said Beauman, who is also a former parks and recreation director. Before the city purchased the land, portions of it were used as a landfill, which means studies before the city property can be sold or transferred, Beauman told about 30 people who gathered for a question and answer meeting at Warren Central High School. The audience included people involved in the Vicksburg Baseball Association, Vicksburg Girls Softball Association and the Culkin Athletic Association.

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The study “puts a slow-down on any procedures or contracts. We’re waiting to see what DEQ says,” Beauman said. “Nobody can do anything on the property until DEQ says, ‘Yeah, you can.’ or, ‘No, you can’t.'”

The delay does not daunt the developers.

“That allows us to get in and manage the (current) fields and learn, and we can start the bulldozers next year,” said Diane Switzer, chief financial officer for the Aquila Group, which is headed by Good Samaritan Physical Therapy owner Tammy Davenport. The original plan was to have new or renovated fields by the start of the upcoming baseball and softball season, which begins in the spring.

Plans are for the city to sell the land to Aquila Group for a nominal fee and to turn over management of the fields to the private group. Davenport announced at the meeting that Ricky Mitchell, past chairman of the Vicksburg Red Carpet Bowl committee, has joined the group as facility manager.

“He will help pull together plans and make the facility work,” Davenport said.

Beauman said, while the city and Aquila await an answer from DEQ, the two groups are working to draw up a managerial contract that will go into effect as soon as construction can begin.

“That will possibly speed up the process in January if DEQ says, ‘go ahead,'” Beauman said. “We don’t want to go into negotiations in January.”

Earlier this year, the city board agreed to pay a refundable $250,000 to Florida-based USA Partners Sports Alliance to determine whether Vicksburg could support the sports complex. A 90-day extension was granted by the city on Sept. 17, moving the deadline to December. Beauman indicated officials are already convinced. “It’s a pretty good deal so far,” he said.

Beauman voiced his support for the group, pointing out the benefits of private management in youth sports.

“Beyond a shadow of a doubt the City of Vicksburg has gone as far as it can go with making sports in Vicksburg better,” he said. “Until it gets into the hands of the private sector, it will not get better.”

The city, however, will still have a hand in recreational baseball and softball, he added.

“What we’re envisioning for next year is mixed participation with the city and Aquila,” he said. “The city will never totally be out of rec. We’ll basically say, ‘You run it and give us a bill.'”

Having the private group manage the fields would free up city dollars currently used to maintain recreation. There was no information on how fees or costs will change under Aquila, which will operate as a business.

“Our recreation budget is in excess of $1 million, and most of that is girls’ softball and boys’ baseball,” Beauman said. “I think it will definitely free up some money.”

Aquila plans to have up to 16 baseball and softball fields, in addition to a welcome center, retractable fencing for handicapped-accessible play, a chapel and a lodge with condos. Even if DEQ does not allow use of the land that once served as the city’s landfill, Davenport said Aquila’s efforts will continue regardless.

“We want things to happen and we want them to happen fast, but there are steps we have to follow and those things take time,” she said. “We are still planning on doing this.”

The group hopes to bring together the individual recreational associations, all of which are nonprofit and board-driven.

“Let the season start and let’s have a meeting of the minds among all boards,” Mitchell said. “We’re going to go ahead, and that’s not a threat — it’s a promise. These ladies have a tremendous vision. The bottom line is — this is going through and we want your support.”

Rick Smith, president of the Culkin Athletic Association, said he is excited about Aquila’s plan. In addition to addressing the needs of recreational sports, the group plans to make Vicksburg a destination for tournament play, its organizers said.

“We need to get on this train, because this train is moving forward and it’s positive for our community,” Smith said.

If construction begins during the ball season, Mitchell said Smith and his board have offered use of Culkin fields.

“Once we get the freedom to operate, we’re going to come out swingin’,” Mitchell said.

Kristi Pantin, director of marketing for Aquila, said the group’s Web site,, will be up Nov. 12 to continue addressing the public’s questions about the proposed complex. Visitors to the site may post comments to Aquila, as well as other community members, she added.

Earlier, Vicksburg officials paid $325,000 for 200 acres of undeveloped land between Hamilton Heights subdivision and St. Michael Catholic Church on Fisher Ferry Road. Plans were to use $4 million of last month’s city bond issue to start developing that site into a second major city sports facility. That money will, apparently, go to the Aquila project. Beauman has said the city can’t fund both projects.