By DOTTY NIST
The idea of a south Walton County sports complex has been kicked around for a number of years, but an actual proposal for such a facility has now surfaced, with a site identified.
Two meetings were held on May 23 to provide the public with details on this possibility, dubbed South Walton Sports and Recreation Complex. A morning meeting took place at the Coastal Branch Library and an evening one was held at the District 5 office conference room in Grayton Beach. The Herald/Breeze attended the Grayton Beach session.
Project proponent Marilu Lammon explained that the focus for the proposed state-of-the-art sports park would be attacting new visitor markets, including participants and supporters of lacrosse and sand volleyball. In the plans are a 25,000-square-foot skate park, four softball fields, four multi-purpose fields, six sand volleyball courts, playgrounds, and hiking and biking trails. There is also space for a 1.8-acre amphiteater. The sports tourism industry, Lammon told attendees, has proved to be virtually recession proof. Not only would the park attract tourists, she commented, it would be available to locals for sports and recreation.
Lammon told attendees that the location for the sports complex would be 2.2 miles east of Emerald Coast Middle School on U.S. 98, on the north side of the highway. The park would be approximately 40 acres in size, on property that is almost entirely uplands and is already cleared.
M.C. Davis, known to many as owner and founder of the Nokuse Plantation conservation acreage east of Freeport and the nature education facility E.O Wilson Biophilia Center, is also owner of the property where the sports park would be located. Davis explained that he and the other members of a company known as Forest View had brought the site a number of years ago from Florida Community Services Corporation (FCSC). FCSC, an agent for Walton County, does business as Regional Utilities. Davis said he is now the sole member of Forest View.
The property is located across U.S. 98 from state park property and is bordered on either side by property owned by FCSC and the St. Joe Company.
Davis said he had also acquired from the St. Joe Company 18 additional acres adjacent to the sports park property fronting U.S. 98.
Davis said he plans to sell the 40-acre property this year and would like to offer it to Walton County first to be purchased for use as a sports park. He said it would be sold for the appraisal value, which would be less than the amount he had paid for the property. Essentially, he explained, property that was originally that of the government would be returned to the government.
He estimated the price tag of the property at $5.5 million.
Davis said presentations on the proposed sports complex had been made to a number of corporations and that they had indicated that they would be interested in partnering with the project.
Attendees asked to know more about what the facility would have to offer for local children. There was interest in a swimming pool, which is not in the plans for the complex, at least in its first phase.
In response to the first consideration, Price Rainer, a member of the presentation team, described the method of scheduling used for the 200-acre Frank Brown Park, a sports complex in Panama City Beach. He said the park sets up local play first and then books tournament play around that.
Lammon said the amphitheater would also be available both to tourists and residents.
Davis commented on the “incredible liability” associated with swimming pools, adding, “It’s hard enough to advance this.” He did not rule out the addition of a pool in the future.
Lammon stated that Frank Brown Park is making money overall but that its aquatic center has resulted in financial losses. She suggested that an aquatic center could be phase 2 for the South Walton Sports and Recreation Complex.
South Walton County resident Jacquee Markel had concerns that people traveling to tournaments would not be “paying Walton County prices” for lodging.
Rainer said he understood that the idea that tournament travelers would rent inexpensive lodging and stay many to a room was widespread. However, he said, in talking with Richard Sanders, vice president of sports marketing for the Panama City Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau, he had learned that these travelers stay in condominiums, with two families usually sharing a unit. These families like to combine travel to tournaments with vacations, he added.
Lammon commented that the focus with tournaments would be on lacrosse and sand volleyball, which are growing in popularity and are played by the affluent.
Rainer said rental managers in Walton County had been very enthusiastic about the possibility of the sports center.
Davis was asked about the previous use of the sports park property as a spray field by Regional Utilities. He confirmed that the property had been used in this manner for disposal of reclaimed water but assured attendees that this would not pose any problem with the proposed use.
The use of the property as a spray field had occurred prior to 2007, when the property was sold to Forest View.
The Herald/Breeze contacted the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) about the proposed use of the former sprayfield. Brandy Smith, external affairs manager for DEP’s Northwest District, commented that DEP would not place any restrictions or additional requirements on the use of the property as a result of its previous use as a spray field.
South Walton County resident Michael Sturdivant expressed enthusiasm about the sports complex. For him, the best aspect of the plan was that local youth would have access to the same world-class sports complex as those from outside the area who would utilize the park.
Information on the sports complex is available on a Facebook page devoted to the proposal, “Support South Walton Sports and Recreation Park.”
Attendees at the May 23 meeting were encouraged to come to the June 11 Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) meeting, where the proposal will be presented to county commissioners. The meeting is scheduled to start at 4 p.m. and take place at the South Walton Courthouse Annex.