Youth sports, especially soccer, will be getting a huge increase in field space this spring thanks to an Oct. 17 vote from the Morgan County Council to invest in new fields at the fairgrounds.
“The good news is the programs are growing, we have great programs,” said Steve George, owner of Generation U Inc., a sports management company currently contracted to oversee league operation as well as maintenance of the Wilkinson Recreation Complex behind Morgan High School. “The bad news is we have outgrown the space needed to make this convenient for everyone who participates.”
The recreation program offers baseball to 400 kids in six leagues; basketball to 470 kids and 60 adults; softball to 250 kids in three leagues and 170 adults; soccer to an average 550 kids in up to 70 teams; and football to 250 kids in six different age groups.
“We are now serving over 2,000 people,” said George, a Morgan native. And things are expected to increase, especially with plans to offer flag football and lacrosse.
The result is the fields at the RecPlex “get beat down to mud,” George said, while the facility is crowded with player and spectators battling heavy congestion and parking issues. “The biggest complaint is lack of practice time and space, mostly for soccer and football,” he said.
George would like to have more fall softball leagues, but soccer players are using all available field space.
The 5.5 acres north of the fairgounds is already owned by the county and the turf is in good condition, George said. With $100,000 from county impact fees, as well as up to $50,000 from the county recreation board, the project could be completed with widened roads, a culvert, power and water utilities, and ample parking. Generation U would maintain the area like they already do for the 11-acre RecPlex.
While a soccer, football and baseball field could all fit in that 5.5-acre space, George intends it to be mostly used for soccer fields.
“This would be a giant green space of grass for the use of the community,” said George, a 1996 Morgan High School graduate. “Now, the biggest need is for our soccer program. We can fit all soccer here, and then some.”
George said feedback from the community has indicated parents and grandparents like all soccer games to take place in a central location, so they can attend multiple games without having to re-park.
Morgan County Councilman Robert Kilmer said the fairgrounds fields would be an increase of almost 200 percent in field space. The increased space may lend to the ability of the recreation board to rent out fields to competition teams for tournaments.
“The reason this makes so much sense is the green space is versatile enough to do what we need to do there. The biggest benefit is the county already owns the land. It is a central place,” George said. “It is flat and the grass is good.”
But it isn’t making sense to Councilwoman Tina Cannon, who said impact fees should be spent in the community where a majority of the fees are collected from. Since 64 percent of impact fees are collected from Mountain Green growth, she said priority should be put on spending those fees on fields on that end of the county rather than near Morgan City.
And there are negotiations ongoing among county and private landowners for field space in three locations, some near the Kent Smith Park as well as the new LDS chapel in Mountain Green, Cannon said.
“We keep getting told a magic piece of land would appear, but it has never happened,” Kilmer said. “We have been talking about this growth issue for years now. We are crammed for space, destroying our fields, and we can’t fit everyone. Even if we get (fields in Mountain Green), we don’t have the benefits we have here (at the fairgrounds). This is playable this spring, once the snow lifts. It is not something that will take years to develop. We are currently providing these service at the complex. It will be the same travel, and not affect anyone negatively. In the future if we decide to change the use of the land, want to put these fields somewhere else, we got our money out of it. It is an immediate and low-cost fix to give the community the services they need without huge costs. It will enhance our ability to continue to provide services. It is a no brainer that solves a lot of problems.”
Councilman Daryl Ballantyne agreed. “Sports are important for youth,” he said. “It is important to the schools and the community. We can make the whole community happy with this.”
“I want the same advantage in Mountain Green, near the school. There needs to be a facility for children after school to get there without parents taking them,” said Cannon, the only one to cast a nay vote Oct. 17. “I am not saying I am not for it (at the fairgrounds). I have been on the rec board, so I am empathetic. I feel we need more public input.”
Councilmembers told Cannon that $700,000 have been collected in impact fees, and the fairground field project would only take $100,000 of that. The remaining, they said, could be spent on field space in Mountain Green after negotiations are complete.
“If we had an area in Mountain Green that came forward like this—ready to build tomorrow—I will be the one to make the motion to build,” Councilman Austin Turner said. “I am not trying to pick one area over the other.”