More than 50 people showed up Tuesday evening to voice concerns and show support at an open house for the proposed multi-sports complex at Shawnee Park in Institute.
In the lobby of the Walker Convocation Center at West Virginia State University, groups and pairs separated themselves from the crowd as they engaged in heated debate for and against the proposed sports complex, which would be built where Shawnee Park Golf Course currently stands.
Proponents for the complex cited tourism, job growth and youth development as some of the reasons for their support, while opponents are disappointed to see their golf course eliminated, and are convinced the money used to build it — an estimated $15.2 million— could be used differently in the area.
“I want to hear all the details about this before I decide where I stand,” said Jim Smith, owner of Ridge View BBQ which sits just down the road from the proposed site.
Smith looked on to the statue of Earl Lloyd, the WVSU basketball legend who was the NBA’s first black player, before continuing to speak. “I wonder — being an athlete — what Earl’s thoughts would be,” Smith said. “Without opportunities, he’d have been another kid on the block ... Maybe [this complex] can give some opportunities.”
The open house allowed Smith and other attendees to view the ground plans for the facility and ask commissioners and other officials any questions they had about the complex, which is planned to feature four collegiate-sized turf baseball/softball fields, six collegiate-sized turf soccer/lacrosse fields, several grass practice fields, a community building, new playgrounds with shelters and parking lots.
If the complex is approved, commissioners hope to attract travel sports teams to the area for tournaments, which could help the local economy, but some local residents still are skeptical.
“This is probably the most idiotic thing the county commission has thought of to date,” said Donna Willis, who has been an Institute resident for 62 years. “To put all their money in one basket, hoping that they’ll be apart of a bigger basket that hasn’t been promised to them. They don’t have any agreements. They don’t have anybody [sports teams and recreational programs] saying they’ll come and participate in this facility.”
Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper, however, believes the potential benefit would be worth the risk, and emphasized it wasn’t just about sports teams, but local children as well.
“I don’t know what you can do to ensure much, other than if [the complex] is well managed. The opportunity I think is great, and it’s well worth the effort,” Carper said. “There’s a lot of young kids that need to do something ... We’ve got to do something different with the youth in this state, country and county.”
Carper foresees a “community board” of sorts, like the Charleston Civic Center Board, being responsible for managing the facility if it opens. He also thinks WVSU and Dunbar should have a seat at the table.
Other concerns within the opposition have to do with the safety of the area, which is near Dow Chemical, a company currently facing a lawsuit from WVSU for allegedly contaminating the groundwater underneath the university. Dow Chemical has agreed to pay for testing the groundwater at the site, however did not provide further details or a time frame for such tests.
Pete Rawlings, 48, from St. Albans, said a sports complex in Institute would be great for him and his 15-year-old son, who plays travel soccer. For practices, he and his family have to drive to five different fields depending on what’s available at the time, and this complex would be convenient for him and the dozens of other families in the area. He also believes this would be an investment in not only the community, but in the future of the community’s children.
“The younger kids that are coming up, this will be a great thing,” Rawlings said. “My parents, when I was growing up, kept me involved with things like sports to keep me out of trouble. If we can keep them involved in this [sports], the more we can keep them out of other things.”
The Kanawha County Commission is set to vote on the proposed complex on May 23, depending on estimates for operating costs and the results of the groundwater testing.