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Supporters of a proposed multi-sport complex at Shawnee Park in Dunbar say the project would add much-needed turf fields for the area's sports teams and would be a boost to the area's economy. Those against the proposal argue the project would take away one of the area's popular golf courses.
Representatives on both sides of the proposal made their cases Wednesday during the public hearing portion of a special meeting of the Kanawha County Commission. The meeting became heated at times.
According to a schematic site plan from Charleston-based architectural firm ZMM, which was chosen to study the project's feasibility, the complex would include six collegiate-sized turf soccer/lacrosse fields, four collegiate-size turf baseball/softball fields as well as 11 grass practice soccer fields. It would have two parking lots, two new playgrounds and a one-mile walking loop. It would keep an existing pool and clubhouse as well as existing tennis and basketball courts. The basketball courts would get upgrades.
The complex also would have a community building with restrooms, concessions and visitor information. The plans for the complex are not final and could change with feedback from the commission and the community, representatives from ZMM said Wednesday.
Commissioner Ben Salango spoke of a 2015 study by the National Association of Sports Commissions that determined Kanawha County could benefit from a sports complex, Salango said. Travel teams from bigger cities like Cleveland and Columbus in Ohio, Louisville and Lexington in Kentucky and Charlotte, North Carolina would make the 3- or 4-hour drive to Kanawha County to participate in travel sports, Salango said.
"If you're going to do it right, you have to do it with a brand new facility, and you have to do to where people would want to come here, Salango said the report states.
Kanawha County has a lot to offer, he said. The complex would be a significant investment and would positively affect the economy and the children of the county, he said.
The study determined that Shawnee Park is the best place for the complex because it has around 127 acres of flat land and a recreational facility there. The park is close to downtown, too, Salango said.
Salango said he doesn't take it lightly that the complex would take away a golf course, but other golf courses in the area are underused, he said.
Using the Shawnee site would cost less because it's already flat. Dunbar is located close to South Charleston, St. Albans and Charleston, where there are several hotels, he said.
A cost estimate for the sports complex has not been determined, Salango said. As for the economic impact, projections say that for every 100 teams who come for travel tournaments, there would be a $1.2 million economic impact. Each team has around 15 players and 25 family members, he said. The teams spend on average $100 per day per person.
Salango said in Traverse, Michigan, a town with nearly 15,000 people, two tournaments meant $3.4 million in spending in the community.
Among those who spoke in favor of the complex was Dave Laraba, executive director of the West Virginia Soccer Association. Laraba said the project would add much-needed soccer fields.
"[There's] not enough space to practice and what space there is - the grass fields are worn out, the turf fields are over used and if there's a little bit of rain they have to cancel everything because they can't tear up the fields up because there's no place else to play, Laraba said after the meeting.
"If you had extra fields, if you tore one field up, you wouldn't have to use it, you could use another field or if you had turf fields you don't worry about tearing them up.
People filled the Kanawha County Courthouse's ceremonial courtroom for the hearing. Commission President Kent Carper said in 21 years he had never before used the courtroom for a commission meeting, but Commissioner Ben Salango had suggested using it so that there was more room for people to attend the hearing.
The city of Dunbar took full control of Shawnee Park in 2014.
Before the meeting, Dunbar Mayor Terry Greenlee told a reporter he supports the proposed complex.
"I think the economic thought on this is for the whole valley, not just Dunbar, Nitro. If it's done properly and done right, it will be huge, he said.
The commission also heard from several golfers who use the course at Shawnee Park. The golf course would be eliminated if the sports complex goes in.
Jim Beheler, a retired insurance agent from St. Albans, was among several golfers who attended the meeting. Beheler said he golfs at Shawnee at least three times a week. The course is popular among older people because it's flat. The course also is more affordable than some others, he said.
Beheler argued that Dunbar doesn't have enough restaurants and hotels to support the proposed complex. Other concerns are the nearby railroad tracks carrying chemicals that could be a safety hazard and a nearby chemical plant that causes an odor and air pollution, he said.
"What other activities are available to kids when they're not playing? he said.
The teams might come once, but likely won't come back once they see the city, he said.
"If they don't have a good time, they'll not come back, he said. "You know negative spreads faster than positive.
Salango said the commission should have a cost estimate for the facility by the end of April or in May. After that, there will be another public hearing on the matter. The commission also would need to establish a financing plan for the complex and discuss management and work with local clubs to coordinate tournaments and practice schedules for the complex.
In other business, the Kanawha County Commission approved a $100,000 contribution to the Clay Center. The money will come from the county's table games fund, Carper said.
Reach Lori Kersey at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-1240 or follow @LoriKerseyWV on Twitter.
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