Sussex County leaders receive update on ‘Sandhill Fields’

GEORGETOWN – There is the Beatles and Strawberry Fields.

Rural Milton, Delaware has Hudson Fields.

In September 2019, if all goes according to timeline plan, Sussex County will have Sandhill Fields – a pioneering public park/sports center initiative that has $1.5 million in loan backing from the county.

“Hopefully, in 14 months we’ll be open,” said businessman Joe Schell, co-founder and president of the Sussex Sports Center Foundation.

In a July 17 PowerPoint, Mr. Schell presented to Sussex County Council an update on progress and status of the project, which now carries a much higher overall price tag.

“The last time I presented to you, we said it would cost $4 million,” said Mr. Schell. “Now it is $5.8 million. So, we’re not very good at estimating. The nice thing is the county is not responsible for any of that increase. Your commitment was $1.5 million, which we gratefully appreciate. The private sector is going to put up all of the money necessary to complete the facility.”

With more than $200,000 in engineering work complete, excavation work began Wednesday, July 18 on the 56-acre parcel along Sand Hill Road north and west of the CHEER Community Center.

Excavation site work began Wednesday for Sandhill Fields.

The facility, now christened Sandhill Fields in lieu of the original Sussex Sports Center, will feature:

  • Eight regulation-size soccer/lacrosse fields;
  • Six pickleball courts with pavilion;
  • 1-mile regulation cross country course;
  • 5 miles of walking trails;
  • Playground equipment;
  • Parking for 350 cars;
  • Restroom facilities;
  • Picnic pavilions;
  • Food truck area.

The sports center foundation pledges that Sandhill Fields will be available for benefit of the 215,000-plus residents of Sussex County. That includes youth sports clubs such as Henlopen Soccer (1,300 boys and girls) and Salt Water Lacrosse (300 boys and girls), two Latino soccer clubs representing 36 teams, middle and high school cross country teams, First State Pickleball Club (420 members and growing) and local residents utilizing the wooded walking trails.

“Facts are we need more fields in one space, so these youth teams can operate,” said Mr. Schell. “The population of this county is growing. It’s growing at both ends of the age spectrum.”

The SSCF plans to generate funding by charging for field/time period requests, a limited number of large-scale tournaments and other events such as rental for weddings.

“If teams want so many fields for a certain period of time, we will charge them. Any time we close the park or certain field, we will charge,” said Mr. Schell. “But a handful of kids want to come in and throw a frisbee around, no charge.”

Thus far, about $3.9 million of the now needed $5.8 million has been raised to date. “We’ve done a good job so far in fundraising,” said Mr. Schell. “There’s a long way to go. We will get there.”

In January 2018, county council approved a memorandum of understanding with the SSCF, and subsequently approved the $1.5 million loan agreement, which was executed in June.

Under the agreement, the SCCF must first spend $1.5 million before it can begin drawing on county loan commitment.

Sussex County, which historically has not had a countywide parks and recreation program, has an option to buy Sandhill Fields for $1 after the 10th anniversary of operations.

The SSCF anticipates it will operate in the red its first three years of operations, with “slight profits in the following two years and then beyond,” Mr. Schell said.

County councilman Samuel Wilson Jr., who has opposed the county’s involvement in this project, questioned the $200,000 spent on engineering.

“You better get cheaper engineers,” said Mr. Wilson. “You know Mr. Schell, it’s easier to spend somebody else’s money.”

“In this case, most of it is mine,” replied Mr. Schell, who has donated substantial land for the project. “I’ve got some skin in this game.”

Mr. Schell provided the reason the foundation board opted for a name change.

“The field was rebranded by the board recently as a more marketing-oriented name. There was a lot of confusion around the name (Sussex Sports Center) and it’s not a very marketable name,” said Mr. Schell. “My guess is after a while everybody will call it … The Sandhill. That will be the short name.”

Approval of county foundation reps delayed

With two of five county council members absent (George Cole and Rob Arlett were representing the county at a national conference), Mr. Wilson blocked a motion that called for councilman Irwin “I.G” Burton and Sussex County Administrator Todd Lawson to be the county’s representatives on the foundation, with Gina Jennings, Sussex County Finance Director, serving as an alternate.

Mr. Wilson, noting he represents the Georgetown area, refused to second Mr. Burton’s motion.

“Here it is in Georgetown; Georgetown district. So, Georgetown don’t mean a thing,” said Mr. Wilson. “I’m not going to second it.”

County council president Michael Vincent passed presiding chair authority to Mr. Wilson, council’s vice president.

“OK, I will give the chair to you (Mr. Wilson) for a second, and I will second it,” said Mr. Vincent. “I’ll take the chair back. Call for the vote.”

“My vote is in favor and I am excited to be a part of this organization,” said Mr. Burton.

“No,” Mr. Wilson said.

“I’ll vote ‘yes.’ But it does not pass. It takes three votes,” said Mr. Vincent. “We need to put this on the agenda for next week.”

News Editor Glenn Rolfe can be reached at grolfe@newszap.com

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