Its members wanted a recreational park. But not just any park. They wanted multiple fields for soccer, baseball, football and softball. They wanted a "miracle field" for disabled athletes.
The council's plan for the more than 300 acres off Leon Smith Parkway south of Interstate 20 would turn the old sod farm into a giant cash register for the city's retailers, luring in teams and tournaments to the city's hotels and restaurants. Former Council President Mike Henderson, who compiled a report for the new council, said the sports complex also would be a giant billboard for Oxford.
The sports complex until recently has been the fields of the prior council's dreams. Multiple roadblocks kept the last council from seeing the project started. One year after most of that council left office, the project is under way even though Mayor Leon Smith says he does not support it.
He hasn't been the only force in the way of getting the project done.
The project generated one lawsuit and raised the threat of another. It was the object of pre-emptive complaints from nearby residents concerned about the potential bright lights and noise at night. The project was bid, rejected, re-bid, rejected and re-bid again. Jerry Sparks, who is suing the city on an unrelated zoning matter, ran a political advertisement in the 2008 campaign accusing the council of pouring the city's money into a useless facility being built on a flood plain.
Smith used the complex's price tag — more than $13 million, by one estimate — along with spending on other projects as a club to beat most of the last council out of office.
Smith said last week he is still against the project, saying the price is too high. Even so, Smith followed through on signing the contract for grading approved by the current council.
City Project Manager Fred Denney said workers hired by the city are clearing brush to prep the site for grading.
Oxford's pay day
Henderson compiled the report in 2008 to bring the newly elected council up to speed on the project. Part of Henderson's report outlines the city's need for the project. Henderson said the report is also a retort to the project's critics.
"Some people … back during the campaign said, 'It's not going to pay for itself,'" he said.
According to the city's Finance Department, Oxford borrowed $17.7 million for the sports complex. To date, the city has spent $5.9 million, much of it for the purchase of the property from owner Mac Hugghins. There were also some costs associated with engineering fees, according to the Finance Department.
Henderson's report claims the sports complex will generate $5.59 million annually. He said he came up with the number by consulting with Parks and Recreation personnel, including Director Don Hudson and former Councilman Boice Turner. The projection comes from averaging what families attending soccer, softball and baseball tournaments would spend on a weekend and multiplying it by a number of tournaments each year.
It estimates the complex's operating costs at $371,500 annually.
"You can bring 50 to 70 teams in a weekend, and that figure is based on the number of fields proposed in the complex, including baseball, softball and soccer," Henderson said. "They stay in the hotels, shop in the stores. It helps our growing retail ... It markets our city, gives us a means to provide a new source of customers without having to provide services for them. These people come in and eat and shop. You don't have to build roads for them or pick up their garbage."
He said the initial plans called for five baseball fields, five softball fields and four designated soccer fields.
Within Oxford, there is also a need for more recreational space, Henderson and other city officials said.
Oxford would not be the first city in Calhoun County to open a new sports facility. Anniston opened its Youth Sports Complex in 2005 after the Anniston City Council approved spending $2.1 million for it in 2004. It hosted the Dixie Youth Baseball tournament in 2008. Anniston's Woodland Park Softball Complex, built in the 1991, has hosted thousands of softball games.
The city of Oxford has not built a new sports complex in nearly 30 years, the report says. Since 2000, the population of Oxford has grown from 14,000 to more than 20,000 in 2008.
Hundreds of children participate in Parks and Recreation Department programs, and 16 adult church leagues use two softball fields, according to the report. Athletes have the Earl Martin Baseball for Youth Complex with five baseball fields, the Oxford Softball Complex with two adult fields and two youth fields, and Barber Dairy with two football fields.
The design presented by Barge Wagoner Sumner and Cannon for the new complex shows multiple practice fields, softball and baseball fields, a nature trail, playgrounds and the "miracle field" designed to be used by athletes in wheelchairs.
Councilwoman June Land Reaves, who served on the previous council and won re-election along with Councilman Steven Waits, said current facilities are not enough.
"The facilities we have right now are not accommodating the crowds of youth we have to use them," Reaves said. "They back up sometimes. Kids have to wait in line to have a field. Sometimes this puts them out late on school nights."
Current Council President Chris Spurlin said the new park will provide more recreation for Oxford's youth. In general, the new council has supported the project, though it sought new bids on it to save money.
Spurlin claims re-bidding the project saved the city $2 million on the excavation project. It will be difficult to verify the total savings until the project is completed. But Spurlin and the new council also added a new track for Oxford High that would be built around the complex; that is estimated to cost between $1.5 million and $1.7 million.
Spurlin said he sees no contradiction between the current council's claims to have saved $2 million and adding nearly that much with a new track.
"I wouldn't say these projects are together," he said. "The sports complex is separate from building the athletic track."
An opposing team
The sports complex has faced diverse opposition, some intentional, some internal. Smith has been one of the loudest voices against it.
When asked why the city needs a sports complex, Smith said, "I have no idea."
He thinks the council could have spent the money more effectively elsewhere.
"What you could've done is buy 100 good acres and build whatever you wanted to," Smith said. "It would not have been in the floodway … and it would've been nice to have had. I don't know if this is ever going to be nice to have had."
Shortly after the new council took over in November 2008, the three new members — Spurlin and Councilmen Phil Gardner and Mitch Key — voted to scrap the old bids and bid the project again. Reaves and Waits voted against it. Discussions about how to re-bid the project followed. At first, the council wanted to bid it as one package.
Then the council decided in May this year to bid it in two phases. The contract for the first phase of the project went to Oxford-based Taylor Corp. for $3.6 million.
When asked why the project has been such a contentious issue, Smith pointed to its cost. Reaves and Henderson said the project is long overdue.
The second phase has not been put out for a bid.
Waits said the previous council also built a new police headquarters and a new library. But those projects did not see the same kinds of hurdles as the sports complex, he said.
"Obviously, the decision to re-bid has caused a substantial delay," Waits said.
A field of dreams
Reaves said the sports facilities in Southaven, Miss., near Memphis, are an example of what the council is trying to achieve.
Tim Grommersch, assistant Parks and Recreation Director for Southaven, said the city constructed two parks in 1999: Snowden Grove Park, a 17-field baseball complex; and Greenbrook Softball Complex, an eight-field softball facility.
Like Oxford's plan, the facility has a rubberized "Field of Dreams" for disabled players. Local businesses raised $50,000 for it, and Grommersch said the city didn't have any choice but to build it.
Like Oxford, the city borrowed the money to pay for it. It spent $20 million on the projects, and the land for the space was donated.
Since the completion of the park, the city has grown tremendously, Grommersch said. He said the city has become a youth sports destination. He did not have an exact estimate of what the facility brings in, but said anecdotal evidence suggests it's a boon to business.
"The economic impact is incredible," he said. "The businesses love it during ball season. They know they're going to have teams staying here, eating in restaurants. It's huge. Our tournaments also help pay for 50 percent of our operating budget."
Grommersch said the project had the widespread support of the residents. And, he added, residents of Oxford should be happy they are getting a similar facility.
Happiness for Oxford's project has been hard to find from Smith and other critics. Spurlin said there hasn't been much argument about the project since he and the other new councilmen took office. When told of the mayor's disdain for the project, he said he was surprised.
"He signed the contracts," Spurlin said. The last estimated completion date was September 2010, but Spurlin did not know if the project would be finished by then because of weather delays.
Henderson said even if the sports complex doesn't make a dime, it's still important for residents' quality of life.
"You build roads because you need good transportation, schools to educate your children," he said. "You build recreation complexes to provide better quality of life."
Hudson, the city's parks and recreation director, said the complex will make his budget larger and require more employees. But he wants the city's recreation facilities to grow with Oxford.
"I'd like to see it built," he said. "I think we need the complex."
Timeline2006 — Residents along Mellon Lane and Red Oak Drive said they were concerned about the potential for lights, noise and traffic generated by the park. Then-Council President Mike Henderson said there were plans for a buffer zone between the park and the residences.
2007 — Birmingham-based Blalock Design Associates sued the City Council for breach of contract, saying the city hired it to design the complex. The council claims it never approved a contract with the firm. The lawsuit, filed in Jefferson County, is pending.
July 2008 — The council awarded Anniston-based McWhorter and Co. a $13.5 million construction contract to build the complex. A bid summary showed an incorrect base bid of $12.3 million from McWhorter, caused by a clerical error. Other bidders threatened to sue.
The council re-bid the contract and awarded the project to Georgia-based Sports Turf Inc. for $13 million, but Mayor Leon Smith never signed the contract.
November 2008 — New council members seek new bids for the project.
July 2009 — Council awards $3.6 million contract to Oxford-based Taylor Corp. for first phase of the project.