Plans for a future sports complex on the southern end of Lebanon are set to be presented to the Lebanon City Council nearly two years after the city purchased 150 acres for $2.5 million for the facility.
The Lebanon Sports Complex Committee held its final meeting last Wednesday. The committee seemingly placed its emphasis on soccer fields to be constructed in the first phase of the project due to a perceived lack of support from city leaders for construction for multiple sports at this time.
“I talked to the mayor several times over the last few weeks and, as most of you know, I don’t think we have the votes to go full hog on this thing — softball, baseball and soccer,” committee member and Lebanon Youth Baseball President Rick Smith said. “We’re probably looking at soccer for the first phase.”
“You guys have done a lot of good work, obviously, but, financially, for the city council, I just feel like for this first phase we should focus on our necessity, which is soccer,” Lebanon Mayor Rick Bell said.
Bell said he spoke with Ruston (La.) Mayor Ronny Walker about how that city funded and built the Ruston Sports Complex, a 185-acre multi-sport complex that features several soccer, baseball and softball fields, as well as football and tennis areas and an indoor sports facility.
Bell said Ruston built its complex through a sales tax referendum and tax-increment financing (TIF) zone, which allows tax revenue from a designated area to go toward a specific project. The committee noted softball and baseball fields would be the economic driver of the complex, while soccer fields would be a necessity for Wilson United Soccer League.
“The reason I got into this was because of baseball, but my goal now is to get something done. I know the airport authority wants its off the airport field as soon as possible,” Smith said.
“The TIF is the key to this. The TIF has been tried in this town before, and it didn’t work then either,” Bell said. “Without the TIF, like it or not like it, the financial aspect of it is just not there.”
Nashville engineering and architecture service firm Barge Design Solutions gave the committee an initial estimated cost of $36 million in 2019, which the group said is likely below the current costs of construction now.
Bell said he figured the city could fund the entire project through a 20-cent property tax increase or partially, which includes soccer and some baseball and softball fields, through a 14-cent property tax increase.
“As mayor, that’s not something that I’m going to propose is that kind of a tax increase. I’m just not going to do it, and quite frankly, I don’t think the city council would ever agree with it if we did,” Bell said.
Some of the committee members were pessimistic the sports complex would ever feature sports beyond soccer if they were not included in the initial approval.
“I see this being nothing but a soccer park now. As they continue to grow, they’re just going to need more fields. It’s just going to be, ‘Well we got the land. Here.’ It’ll just be more soccer,” Lebanon Girls Softball Association President Wayne Oakley said. “That’s why I say baseball and softball will never be built here at this complex if we don’t do it now.”
Oakley also said he did not support the proposed Cumberland University track in the first phase due to the amount of space it would occupy that could take away space from Wilson United Soccer League.
At the time, Phase I included five soccer fields (one of them a turf field), which was estimated to cost $6.7 million to $7.5 million.
Cumberland University Athletics Director Ron Pavan told the committee that university administrators analyzed building the track at Nokes-Lasater Field, which the university uses for its football program, but determined the project was too extensive.
The track would be home to Cumberland’s men’s and women’s track and field teams, which started in 2016. At that time, Cumberland had not had a track and field team for 50 years but had offered cross country for the previous 15 years.
Pavan said the university would build the track, estimated at around $800,000-$900,000, and maintain the track.
Joe Sawyer with Barge Design discussed adding the track to the project’s Phase I, which reduced the original five fields to four fields, with the turf field inside the potential Cumberland track.
“I think of the real estate this takes up for Wilson United Soccer, the cost inflations for the entire future development of this, I’m not for that,” Oakley said. “I’m not against Cumberland, but I’m for what we’re looking for out of this park, which is the citizens of Lebanon.”