City, county move to join youth baseball activities|[01/11/08]

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 11, 2008

Efforts announced in October to merge city and county youth baseball organizations have moved along considerably, with plans still in the works to contract with Aquila, the group that is in the process of bringing a multimillion-dollar youth sports complex to the current Halls Ferry Park site, to handle recreational baseball countywide.

Rick Smith, president of the Culkin Athletic Association, said Thursday the private group’s board and that of the Vicksburg Baseball Association have agreed to combine efforts under a new umbrella, the Vicksburg Warren Athletic Association.

Further, the association is seeking a commitment from Warren County supervisors to assume full maintenance of the grounds at Culkin ball fields so the group can still hold non-tournament league play at the Mount Alban Road fields.

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

Smith provided the update at a meeting of county supervisors and officials with the county’s parks and recreation commission and Clear Creek golf course Thursday.

Later in the day, Smith and VBA president David McHan, along with several other community members, attended a question-and-answer session led by Aquila and called by North Ward Alderman Michael Mayfield.

“It’s an unprecedented occurrence that the two baseball associations that have been separated forever to come together,” Smith said. “We’ll have more numbers and more kids will have the opportunity to play. This doesn’t happen around the state. If nothing else, this should be an encouragement to the community.”

Tammy Davenport, owner of Good Samaritan Physical Therapy and the leader of Aquila, addressed questions about the complex, unveiled last fall to have up to 16 baseball and softball fields, a welcome center, retractable fencing for handicapped-accessible play, a chapel and a lodge with condos. Aquila would take responsibility for the fields or contract with another private group, its principles have said. The move is seen as privatizing many Vicksburg Recreation Department functions.

Outside Vicksburg, maintaining county fields has often fallen to the private sector, usually parents, despite the county’s gaining ownership of the ball fields at Culkin several years ago from the Vicksburg Warren School District. The city uses about $1 million in funding each year that, if a private group were to take over maintenance, could be used somewhere else, South Ward Alderman Sid Beauman has said.

In the county, a “handshake agreement” on maintenance has existed since about 1991 and a binding legal document outlining a contact point for recreational use of the ball field is in order, officials said as they grappled with the ball field’s future viability.

“We’re just putting in writing what we’ve always done,” District 1 Supervisor David McDonald said. “We just need to know who’s in charge of the ball field.”

“A written agreement to administer the ball field doesn’t bother me,” park commissioner Jimmy Harrison said. “We need to be on the same sheet of music.”

Park commissioner and former Vicksburg Mayor Joe Loviza said the commission itself should be responsible for maintenance and scheduling recreational games on the ball field.

“They should be your agent,” Loviza said. “Private running public is not good politics.”

Smith has said cutting ties with county government and having Aquila maintain the fields has been discussed.

Aquila is awaiting a second phase of an environmental study to be completed at the proposed site, specifically on the portion formerly used as a city landfill. That study, ordered by the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, is planned for completion by the end of this month. After that study is completed, the feasibility study can, then, be finished, said Diane Switzer, Aquila’s chief operating officer.

Once the study determines whether or not the group can build on the 66 acres where youth baseball is currently played in the city, Aquila and the newly formed baseball association will come up with a management contract stating specifics about what the private group will and will not control. According to conversations Thursday night, Aquila will mostly manage scheduling and maintenance to the fields and buildings, in addition to bringing tournaments, which are separate from recreational leagues.

Waiting on the study means the city will continue to wait to determine how the $4 million from the city’s most recent bond issue and 200 acres off Fisher Ferry, purchased several years ago, will be used. The money was earmarked for a sports facility, but since the private group has made its offer, the city has stepped back to see whether it will pay the money to Aquila as a contract provider of recreational services or continue to operate under city staffing and management. Vicksburg owns land west of Fisher Ferry Road between Hamilton Heights subdivision and St. Michael Catholic Church, purchased for recreational development, which will not be used if details are sealed with Aquila.

Aquila officials were receptive to incorporating recreational baseball when they appeared with Culkin and county recreation officials at a supervisors meeting in October, though they gave assurances they would not be running recreational leagues.

Some supervisors were hesitant about a complete takeover of recreation, both competitive and recreational, by the private firm proposing the sports complex — something Aquila officials have not voiced a desire to do.

“Aquila will be over them, eventually,” District 2 William Banks said of the pace of talks between the two private groups.

Local NAACP President John Shorter, who attended the evening meeting, had similar sentiments. He came with a list of questions, mostly focused on why the feasibility study, for which the city paid $250,000, had not yet been returned to city officials.

“We know it’s economically feasible. But we cannot give the full picture until we know from MDEQ that we can build right there,” Davenport said in response to Shorter. “We’re still going to do the project. It’s a matter of where and what other resources we will need.”

Shorter, who inquired about fees for children who wish to play ball, voiced fears about the Aquila Group taking over youth recreation as a strict profit gain. Switzer, however, said fees will remain the same under the private management and opportunities would be available for those unable to pay to have fees waived. The athletic association would still have an active role in offering those opportunities.

“We have to maintain our separate nonprofit organization,” McHan said of a partnership with Aquila. “This is going to take the pressure off us, so we can concentrate more on recreational ball. We’re the volunteer people. This will be the greatest thing if it can go through.”

Mayfield said his purpose for having the meeting was to make sure children don’t “fall through the cracks.”

“You have to make sure you cover all of your bases so that the children have what it takes to be involved,” he said.

Otherwise, at the morning meeting, supervisors and their appointed commissioners determined the short-term needs in county-funded recreation will run about $10,500 over this year’s budget.

Managers of the golf course at Clear Creek had hoped to couple an $85,000 system to irrigate the course and soccer field with a new restroom near the course’s fifth hole.

But, despite an advance of $20,000 approved as the fiscal year began, funding for recreation is set to be near its traditional allocation of $220,000. Recreation commissioners had originally wanted $415,000 for 2007-08 as part of a heady, $1.8 million plan over four years to re-sod and reshape the golf course built in 1978 and partially renovated in 2004.

When pressed by Loviza for midyear, emergency funding — something supervisors reserved in recent years only for buying the eventual new home for E-911 and repairing a retaining wall near board offices — Richard George, president of the county board, remained steadfast.

“What we grant is what we grant,” he said. “There’s nowhere to pass the buck. It stops with us.”

Supervisors ended discussion agreeing the restrooms and irrigation system needed to be addressed this year, with funding available as tax revenue from December bills comes in.