When Lee County voters head to the polls this fall to vote for a president, they’ll also have a choice whether or not to authorize a $25 million bond for the construction of a potentially game-changing sports complex.
By Gordon Anderson
Among the many definitions of the word “pitch” is one British English variant which means playing field. The kind you might use for soccer (or as they call it across the pond, football).
Over here, we use the word more frequently — in the sporting context at least — to refer to throwing a ball which another player would then attempt to strike with a bat. Or in a political or even sales context, to make the case for something. An appeal.
When The Rant Monthly featured on its cover the concept of a multi field sports complex in June 2019, the idea, into which a great deal of work had already gone, was nevertheless still just that — a concept.
Artist renderings that have been floating around for multiple years now show a complex with multiple baseball, soccer and football fields, walking trails, a pond and even a hotel at the intersection of Broadway Road and the U.S. 421 bypass. Those renderings are also still conceptual, but make no mistake — the pitch for the complex itself has now very much been thrown.
It’s been the better part of a year since the Lee County Board of Commissioners approved placing a bond referendum on the November ballot. The referendum will ask voters to authorize the issuance of $25 million in Parks and Recreation bonds, “plus interest, for the purpose of providing funds, together with any other available funds, for acquiring, constructing, expanding and improving various parks and recreational facilities for said County, including, without limitation, a multi-sport complex and any related land, rights of way and equipment, and providing that additional taxes may be levied in an amount sufficient to pay the principal of and interest on said bonds.”
The private sector push for the initiative began in earnest in July, when Lee Grow Play Succeed, a campaign committee formed to advocate for the bond’s passage, officially kicked off its efforts with a website and social media tools aimed at persuading votes in the yes direction.
Erin Borrell of Sanford is one of the co-chairs of the Lee Grow Play Succeed campaign and said she got on board because of her own experience as a child and her current status as a sports mom.
“My family has traveled our state and surrounding states playing both soccer and baseball,” she said. “A sports complex to call our own in Lee County would bring a sense of pride to our community and our athletes. In addition, the economic impact it would have on our small businesses would be huge. Hosting families from around the surrounding areas would allow us the opportunity to show what Sanford has to offer, including so many great restaurants and small businesses.”
Borrell’s emphasis on the project’s economic impact is one its proponents consistently tout. Even in the midst of a pandemic, many youth sports continue, and the opportunity they envision is to draw families from across the state to Sanford and have them leave their dollars and sales taxes behind at our hotels, local restaurants and in the downtown area (some estimates have put that number as high as $2 million per year) — as well as to add to Lee County a quality of life amenity that many say has been conspicuous by its absence for many years.
During a recent Friends of The Rant podcast, Borrell’s co-chair Susan Keller discussed the multiple studies going back five years which showed the idea to be one that residents consistently support.
“There was another study where those thousand people were surveyed that asked them ‘What do you think is lacking in Lee County?’ What do we need — do we need more football fields? Do we need more soccer fields?” Keller said in that interview. “The resounding answer was ‘yes.’ We need lots of these things.”
Some opponents — and even proponents — may consider a sports complex to be more of a want than a need. Tim Blodgett isn’t one of them.
Blodgett, a former staff sergeant in the United States Marine Corps, is now the owner and director of the San Lee Soccer Academy, director of coaching for the Sanford Area Soccer League, and general manager of the semi-pro SanLee Futbol Club. He’s also the former head soccer coach at Grace Christian School and was a member of the U.S. Soccer Federation’s Paralympic National Team from 2016 to 2018.
Put simply, if anyone is up to speed on the state of sporting facilities in Lee County specifically when it comes to soccer, it’s Blodgett.
“I can tell you it’s personally embarrassing for our soccer community,” Blodgett said, noting that he’s seen talented players leaving for other clubs due to the lack of local facilities. “We have so many talented teams here in Sanford, but unfortunately we can’t host matches, many times because of facilities that simply are not up to par. I’ve been at our fields here in Sanford when we have teams show up and simply laugh.”
Blodgett’s involvement in the game has also afforded him the opportunity to see firsthand what type of impact a sports complex can have on a community.
“I had the opportunity to meet with (Holly Springs) Mayor (Dick) Sears through a mutual friend about a year ago to brainstorm ways we can provide a sports platform like Holly Springs has right here in Sanford,” he explained. “Mayor Sears has been in office since 2001 and has seen tremendous positive economic impact by providing athletic complexes in his community. Ting stadium specifically opened in 2015 — in 2015 Holly Springs had a population of 31,000, very similar to Sanford’s population now. In their first year of operation they brought in over 275,000 people. The potential positive economic impact for the community has no ceiling in my opinion.”
According to Lee Grow Play Succeed and county government, the maximum cost to local property taxpayers is estimated at 4.3 cents per $100 of property valuation, or in Keller’s summation, “about 60-odd dollars per year” per family.
“Which we’re calling two cups of coffee a month,” she continued.
But many others point to a rosy economic picture which — despite COVID — shows a more than $680 million increase in the local tax base thanks to four companies alone choosing to relocate or expand locally. Add to that a surge in housing development and the estimated $2 million in associated annual economic activity, and many supporters are hoping the project can be pulled off with minimal or even zero property tax implications.
“I think the hope is, and certainly probably the definite situation pre-COVID was that that wouldn’t happen because our tax base is growing so much with all the businesses and people that are coming, that we wouldn’t really need that additional funding,” Keller said.
COVID, in fact, threatened to derail the entire bond initiative, since many leaders cautiously took pause at the idea of asking the public to approve spending $25 million in the midst of a pandemic. Faith in the strength of the idea as well as in the pandemic coming to an end at some point sooner rather than later prevailed, however, and some have indicated that the opportunity to weigh in on something so potentially transformational ought to give residents hope for a brighter future.
“The last six months during the pandemic have been hard for so many. One thing we are all missing is normalcy,” Borrell said. ‘The Lee Grow Play Succeed Campaign is looking to the future and planning for not if our kids can get back on those fields again but when. We are excited to look to the future where our local competitive sports teams can have a ‘home field advantage’ and where people can experience this great community that we call home.”
The idea is not without its detractors, though. And while both political support and opposition have been found on both sides of the partisan aisle, the issue has crystalized in one way through the lens of November’s election for the Lee County Board of Commissioners into one Republicans have tended to oppose and Democrats have tended to support.
This edition of The Rant Monthly (beginning on Page 31), includes questions posed to candidates for the board of commissioners, including one about the sports complex proposal. Each of the Democratic candidates indicated their support, while each of the Republicans — some in stronger terms than others — voiced opposition (it should be noted that the same question was asked to candidates for the Board of Education, where it elicited more supportive answers from those who responded).
Most of the opposition centered around wording candidates said was “not specific” enough and the potential for adding $25 million to the county’s debt load.
“The referendum states funds are for ‘expanding and improving various parks and recreational facilities’ including a sports complex,” wrote Bill Carver, one of three Republican candidates seeking one of three seats on the board. “It’s not clear how this expenditure measures up against other priorities; what effect will this obligation have on funds available to address mental health and homeless needs, adequacy of policing, or debt reduction? Will a more remote large sport complex meet the demand for local parks that are accessible to children in various communities? Can the neighborhood parks be upgraded, maintained, and scheduled to meet requirements for league play as an alternative to one large complex?”
Paula Fine-Mbuangi and Sandra Jones, the race’s other two Republican candidates, also cited the alleged vagueness of the initiative’s wording, and Jones said she had concerns about the location.
“This bond is worded in a way that does not guarantee facilities will be built for the benefit of most families that need access to recreational resources,” Fine-Mbuangi wrote.
“I question what percentage of our children and perhaps adults would have access to the facility and ability to use the multi-sport fields because of the location. Could not the facility be moved to a location to allow better access?” Jones answered.
Lee County Manager John Crumpton said vague wording when it comes to bond referenda is far from atypical, since that type of vote doesn’t require bonds to even be issued — it only authorizes them, and elected bodies need the flexibility offered by broad wording.
“It has to say ‘Parks and Recreation bond,’ instead of specifying a multi sport complex,” Crumpton said, explaining that such was the case with recent community college and other bonds passed in Sanford and Lee County, and that the county’s bond counsel wrote the language in accordance with state law and guidelines from the North Carolina Local Government Commission.
Crumpton said that flexibility will be a positive if the bonds pass, because that’s when the public will have an opportunity to offer input about what specifics the project will include.
“You can’t even hire an architect until after the bond has passed,” Crumpton said. “Architect fees are usually in the seven to 10 percent range, which would mean around $2 million for this project. And the citizens will have to say what they want before an architect is hired. You still go through a dynamic process after a bond is sold. All we have right now is a concept.”
Crumpton said the specific offerings at the complex could look different when completed — there’s been talk, for example, of replacing a sand volleyball court on the rendering with a basketball court — and that even the location could change based on any number of circumstances. But assuming the passage of the bond measure, the county would still have options.
“We have a sort of verbal option on that land right now, but that’s it,” he said.
In the end, Keller said the Lee Grow Play Succeed campaign’s “pitch” is about making sure voters are as informed as they can be about the issue.
“Regardless of how you feel about it, it’s an item that’s on your ballot,” she said. “It’s on everybody’s ballot, and they need to understand what it is. So we’re really looking at it from here on out as an informational thing. This is what this is, this is why we think you should support it, but you need to understand what it is and the potential implications for you and your family and the businesses here in town, most of which are really good implications.”
Keller said the Lee Grow Play Succeed campaign is planning a number of initiatives that will further the goal of educating the public, including unveiling a couple of videos on its website (leegrowplaysucceed.com) and a live Q&A session that will air on the group’s Facebook (@LeeGrowPlaySucceed). And while reaching voters in person has been difficult in a time of closures and social distancing, the group is doing everything it can to spread the word.
The pitch has been thrown. We find out in November where it lands.
Additional reporting by Billy Liggett