Public access to sports complex being weighed

Published 10:20 am Wednesday, April 5, 2017

“This isn’t Nike Park,” says Council member concerning use of facility

By Ryan Kushner

Staff writer

Despite more than $1 million in public funding being contributed to the project, free public access to the Joseph Luter Jr. sports complex may be considerably limited.

Accessibility to the facility was a topic of concern during a Town Council committee meeting Tuesday, March 28, as a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) draft between Isle of Wight County and the town of Smithfield for payments toward the fields was presented.

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The county agreed to commit $250,000 to the construction of the sports complex early last year, but an MOU was not written at that time.

The proposed MOU states that the county will donate $50,000 to the town for the next five years. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

The MOU with the county presents a list of possible users of the fields, which includes Isle of Wight County Schools, Isle of Wight Parks and Recreation, the Windsor Athletic Association and the town of Windsor.

The MOU separates the usage into two categories: casual use and regular use.

Casual use, such as a kickball game for the nearby Westside Elementary School, would require a refundable $100 deposit from Isle of Wight County schools to Smithfield Recreation Association, the organization slated to manage and maintain the facilities once they are completed, to ensure the facilities are left the way they were found. 

Regular use of the fields, such as official baseball events or tournaments for which an entry fee could be charged, will cost a fee determined by SRA and approved by the town, according to the MOU draft.

In either case, any use of the facilities would need to be submitted for approval to SRA.

Council member Milton Cook said during the meeting that he had envisioned that there would be times when the public could use the fields freely, similar to Nike Park.

“I want to make sure that this park is open to the general public when it’s not used by SRA,” said Cook.

Vice Mayor Andrew Gregory, however, said that from a maintenance standpoint, the town should be wary of allowing “unsupervised people” to use the expensive facilities.

“This isn’t Nike Park,” said Gregory.

Town Attorney Bill Riddick confirmed that any use of the field would need to go through SRA, but that availability for “casual use” would likely evolve over time.

“The town reserves the right to establish rules and regulations to govern the use of the facility,” said Riddick.

Town Parks and Recreation Director Amy Musick is in charge of establishing a schedule and fees for use of the fields when they are not being used by SRA. Musick will also oversee the fees, scheduling and maintenance for the complex’s one multipurpose field, which will be managed solely by the town. The fees have not yet been determined.

“It’s all so new to us,” Musick said during a phone interview regarding the scheduling process. “We’re working our way through it.”

Town Manager Peter Stephenson said during the meeting that the town wants to make sure it knows what is going on at the fields at all times.

A complete understanding of exactly how the completed facility will be managed between the town and SRA may not be clear until summer, according to Riddick.

The plan has been for the town to lease the complex to SRA, a nonprofit organization, which will then be in charge of managing and maintaining the sports complex, which will include four baseball fields of various sizes.

The town will still retain ownership of the fields, but exactly who does what and how is still somewhat up in the air.

“That’s the challenge to doing this, is that there’s shared responsibility,” said Riddick, who has been working with SRA for the past few months to establish a lease agreement.

The lease agreement is separate from the town’s proposed MOU with the county.

“There’s going to be a lot of things that we didn’t think about,” said Riddick of the lease.

“This is going to be a learning curve.”

Riddick did not get specific about exactly what still needed to be determined in the lease, but said there is “a lot.”

SRA President Chris Kennedy said last week that, for SRA, there are no particular items that are holding up an agreement, but that it’s been at times difficult to get together with all necessary parties to discuss the lease.

The town and SRA were scheduled to meet last Thursday to continue negotiations, according to Riddick.

According to Gregory, the end goal for the facility is for it to eventually be self-sustaining, generating direct revenue from gate fees, usage fees and concessions.  

“The true economic impact is the ‘indirect’ revenue from the visitors from out of town,” said Gregory in an email. “This (facility) gives people from all around us one more reason to come visit Smithfield and see everything it has to offer.”

However, the town has yet to perform any study or cost analysis to determine what revenue the facility might generate or what the cost of operations and maintenance will be, according to Stephenson and Musick.

Musick said she doesn’t believe that the facility will be revenue producing, but will benefit youth sports, such as Pop Warner, as well as businesses in the town by attracting outside patrons.

The town will have to purchase new maintenance equipment for the multipurpose field, including a new mower, according to Musick.

Since 1968, SRA has maintained several baseball fields at Beale Park, which was donated to the organization by Carl M. Beale, a donation that kick-started the organization.

Kennedy said SRA has been saving up for the move to the sports complex, and that all of the equipment needed to maintain the four ball fields will be purchased by SRA.

Currently, for equipment, SRA has a gator golf cart and one tractor. It plans on purchasing another mower to cut infield grass, according to Kennedy.

Landscaping at Beale Park is done by an older resident who lives near the field, according to Kennedy.

Kennedy said SRA will have to bid out a contract for someone to come in to tend to the new fields at the sports complex.

“It’s going to be quite a bit of mowing,” said Kennedy.

Last year, SRA committed to contributing $300,000 to the sports complex, funds it plans to acquire through the sale of Beale Park. The organization does not plan to place the field on the market until after a lease agreement for the sports complex is finalized with the town, according to Kennedy.

Besides the county’s $250,000, the town of Smithfield put up $775,000 to purchase the 100-acre property the sports complex is being constructed on.

Joseph Luter III, former president and CEO of Smithfield Foods, donated $2 million to the ball park project, and an additional $1 million was contributed by his former company. Farmers Bank is also donating $175,000.  {/mprestriction}