County seeks input on $1.5 million request to support public sports complex

GEORGETOWN – Sussex County has been asked to ante up a $1.5 million investment in a multi-faceted sports complex that someday could be the foundational cornerstone for a county-based parks and recreation initiative.

Foundation members Bobby Horsey, front, and Zachary Crouch await their turn to speak on the proposed Sussex Sports Center.

Sussex Sports Center Foundation members Joe Schell, Bobby Horsey and Zachary Crouch shared plans for the proposed $4 million complex off Sand Hill Road just north of the CHEER Community Center at county council’s Sept. 26 meeting.

Planned on approximately 70 acres of land donated by Joe Schell, the project would feature eight full size Bermuda grass athletic fields accommodating soccer, field hockey and lacrosse and sandlot touch football, walking trails, a certified cross-country course that could host large-scale competitions, playground equipment, a pavilion/picnic area and at present six pickleball courts.

Barring setbacks, organizers are shooting for public use in spring 2019.

“The whole thing is to provide a facility is for the community,” said Mr. Crouch of Davis, Bowen & Friedel.

“This project is a big asset to our county,” said Mr. Horsey, whose family business would do the excavation and site work preparation. “In today’s climate where so much of the ground is being gobbled up by development … there is an opportunity for Sussex County citizens to recreate.”

Mr. Schell said the entire cost of the project remains fixed in the $4 million ballpark. “That is our estimate. We haven’t changed that. We changed some of pieces. It still looks like it will cost $4 million,” he said. “There is no cost to the land.”

An additional $350,000 placed in a reserve fund would cover any financial losses in the early years of operation. Foundation members say operation projections predict a $20,000 profit in 2022. “We want to maintain this facility to be a pristine showcase for parks and rec activities,” said Mr. Schell.

The foundation anticipates funding sources for this public/private partnership will be $2.6 million from the private sector, and $1.8 million from the town of Georgetown, Sussex County Council and the state of Delaware, Mr. Schell said.

“We think it is doable,” said Mr. Schell. “We’ve asked you for $1.5 million of support, which is a very big number and we appreciate you considering it. And at some point in time down the road if you all want to get into the parks and rec business you have an option to buy the facility from the foundation for a dollar.”

“We are here today because you are asking the county for $1.5 million, which is a significant number; the first time ever we have done anything like this in the history of the county when it comes to sports and park facilities,” said county councilman Rob Arlett, R-Frankford. “Obviously, we have to have questions regarding financial piece. My concern to that effect is how it plays out as a priority in this county.”

Joe Schell points out the location of the cross country trail.

The proposal is community-based with only a handful of tournaments scheduled, unlike Pete Townsend’s tournament-based Sports at the Beach baseball complex several miles east on U.S. 9.

Operation revenue will come from some tournaments, camps, reserved agreements with clubs for specific times and fields and special events such as rentals for weddings.

“It’s a non-profit. We’re not trying make money,” said Mr. Schell. “Most of the public that walks in through the front gate or drives in and parks their car in the parking lot won’t pay a penny.”

“In our case it is not a tournament-oriented facility but much more oriented toward regular play, use by the public. And not just young kids, older kids like us” who like to walk, play pickleball …,”Mr. Schell said.

Entwined in the project are plans to address the traffic bottleneck at the intersection of U.S. 9 and Sand Hill Road/Airport Road.

“One of the issues that DelDOT has had as far as fixing that intersection of course is drainage and also land to align the intersections. We’ve been in communication with DelDOT,” said Mr. Crouch, adding the foundation will be donating two parcels of property. “That way the alignment of that intersection can be done be appropriately so that it can correct some of the problems.”

Part of that $4 million is to buy two pieces of property for DelDOT to realign the intersection. “Appraisals are done. We are allocating $250,000 to buy those two pieces of property,” said Mr. Schell.

Mr. Schell said DelDOT is applying for a $7 million grant from federal government to fix that intersection. “Like all DelDOT projects we are all impatient to see success,” said Mr. Schell, adding the hope is intersection realignment would be completed sometime in 2019.

“This project is truly the catalyst for that gateway to Georgetown and gateway to our airport,” said Mr. Horsey.

The proposal raised some council member questions and concerns.

“How vetted are these numbers because if the county is going to end up hopefully being in the business, I wonder how these numbers which driven solely from tournament revenue, camps; are they well vetted,” said councilman Irwin G. Burton, R-Lewes. “Can you really generate $100,000 for club practices?”

Mr. Schell said the foundation believes it can and will, largely through interest expressed by Hispanic soccer clubs, other organizations and in particular the Henlopen Soccer Club, which he said has already committed to $50,000. The project also has the support of the Seashore Striders cross country/running club and the First State Pickleball Club.

Mr. Burton also questioned the foundation’s initial plan to rent portable toilets. “I just think you’ve got to have a bathroom. My mom is not going to come and see her grand-kids play,” said Mr. Burton. ” You need a bathroom!”

Councilman George Cole, R-Ocean View, asked if the project will be done in phases. Mr. Schell said there will be no phasing, other than options for additional pickleball courts, given demand, and future plans to replace portable restrooms with permanent bathroom facilities.

Mr. Cole questioned the demand, noting the new DE Turf complex in Kent County and athletic facilities in the Salisbury area.

“Build it; they will come. What if they don’t?” said Mr. Cole. “I question that people will do what you are hoping they will do.”

Mr. Arlett questioned the $25,000 that Mr. Schell said is pledged from the town of Georgetown. Mr. Arlett suggested Georgetown might be the primary beneficiary of the complex and its amenities and thus should be asked to ante up more support.

“I would think we need to have more dialogue from residents that benefit most,” said Mr. Arlett.

“I don’t think that is a correct assumption.  If you look at the people that signed those support letters, there were way more people from other parts of Sussex County. Georgetown was a pretty small minority, other than the Hispanic soccer clubs,” said Mr. Schell.

“Do I think there is enough demand right here in Sussex County? Yes,” said Mr. Schell. “I think it’s wonderful it’s in the middle of the county. It is fortuitous that my son convinced me I should buy the land as a place for Sussex Academy. Before we did the exchange with Delmarva Christian, that is where Sussex Academy was going to go.”

“How would we pay $1.5 million in consideration of what we have seen today?” said Mr. Arlett.

“We do have $1 million in the capital budget for land improvements,” said Sussex County Finance Director Gina Jennings.

Mr. Arlett suggested perhaps reaching out to the town of Georgetown. Mr. Cole suggested looking into additional funding from next year’s fiscal year budget.

Mr. Schell explained that private funding will be utilized first. “We wouldn’t get around drawing your funds until mid-year next year,” he said. “I don’t think planning is a problem if you can get the other half a million dollars in next year’s budget.”

“Let’s digest all of this,” said Mr. Cole.

“It seems to me everybody is looking for leadership from the Sussex County … not from the federal government, not the town of Georgetown,” said Mr. Schell. “I think leadership from Sussex County Council would be very important to people of this county.”

No public hearing is planned, but council members want public input on this proposal and the $1.5 million request for county support. Members of the public can solicit comments and input through the county’s website, in writing or during the opening public comment segment at county council meetings. Public commentary is limited to three minutes per person.

“They have three options: website, send something in or come to the meeting,” said council president Michael Vincent, R-Seaford.

Mr. Horsey, whose family has been a longtime proponent of youth sports, acknowledged Mr. Schell for his generosity and donation of land.

“We wouldn’t be standing here today if it wasn’t for the generosity of Mr. Schell being willing to donate this property,” said Mr. Horsey. “It actually all started with a phone call from me to his son asking him what his pop was going to do with that land and if he would be interested in putting a soccer complex on it. That has since snowballed to here we are today standing before you.”

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

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