Batters up -- and kickers, too

New commercial sports complex planned for U.S. 411 South

Photo with no caption
By Lance Coleman
Senior reporter
Blount Today

There are few things less exciting than watching grass grow.

Jerry Simmerly of Maryville is getting excited about just that, however. Simmerly has plans to develop a 200-acre sports complex on U.S. 411 South at Henry Lane that will boast softball, baseball and soccer fields.

He’s calling it Smoky Mountain Athletics.

Simmerly has a contract to buy the acreage. His next step is to go before the planning commission to get the property re-zoned for the project. If that goes well, then it is a race to get the project underway while the grass-growing season is good.

"I hate to watch grass grow, and the interest turning," Simmerly said. "We’re hoping by late July to be planting grass. If not, we have to wait until May of ‘08."

Simmerly plans to have soccer, softball and baseball fields. While he hopes to have the ability to host high-level tournaments at the facility, the first step in the process is to get the property zoned for the venture.

Simmerly said it would be difficult to say what the impact of the venture would be on the county until the property is zoned for the venture. Then the project planners will know what exactly can be done on the plat.

"Obviously, there’s going to be sales tax and hotel motel tax revenue. In our estimates, hundreds of people will have some level of employment from this venue when we’re fully operating," he said.

The economic impact could be substantial, he said. "We’re hoping, if it all pans out, it would be similar to creating 30 to 35 Smoky Mountain Classics here in Blount County," he said.

Simmerly, his father, David Simmerly, and Parks and Recreation founder Frank Bradley are initial investors, as are others who asked to remain anonymous. "We have 200 acres under contract. There are other investors, and there will be other opportunities for the community to invest. The interest in this project is not just from Blount County," Jerry Simmerly said. "It goes from New England to the Southern states all way to Florida. We’ve got a lot of friends and people we’ve met
over the years. They’re interested and wanting to invest in it. We’re trying to provide an outlet and fill a niche."

Jerry Simmerly said the investors were not planning this facility to compete with Maryville, Alcoa Blount County Parks and Recreation. "We’re not trying to down-play what standard recreation leagues or Parks and Recreation does. We’re just
trying to enhance what they do," he said. "It has been something my dad and I have been thinking about the right way of
doing for years now. We see what the need is. This land became available and provided the opportunity to possibly do this."

According to Jerry Simmerly, the project team is trying to create a first class facility. "These will field the caliber of what you would see at the University of Tennessee. We are using consultants from the university to design and develop the fields," he said.

Simmerly said the initial site plan calls for at least four large baseball fields, high school and college level; four full-size Little League fields; four full-size girls softball fields and upwards of 16 to 24 soccer fields. "Our hope is we could play soccer and football there," he said.

"I think it’s going to create a regional focus in Blount County. There’s going to be no other facility in East Tennessee like this. It will provide a central location for kids in this area to play at a highly competitive level," he said. "What we’re going to create is an environment where the highest level of competitive teams will be coming to this facility."

Jerry Simmerly said he and the investors were putting together a team with the best engineers, architects and the best environmental people. "The site does have creeks, and we want to protect wetlands and creeks. We’re going to capture the scenic beauty of the creeks and let the community down there use that," he said. "I’ve met with several folks in the community. This is their community. I want this to be something they can enjoy."

Simmerly said he went looking for a site to do the project in October.

"It fell in my lap in December. I met with Jerry Cunningham in-or-around New Year’s Day, and he’s done exactly what he said. He streamlined the process," Simmerly said.

Jerry Simmerly said that five years from now, if all goes as planned, they hope to have even more property and a total of 30 soccer fields and 16 or so different levels of baseball and softball fields.

"Five years down the road, if it all goes as planned, and we can get the land we need, we hope to have 30 soccer fields, we hope to have 16 or so different levels of baseball and softball fields," he said. "They will be lighted and irrigated with Bermuda infields."

Simmerly said the investors hope that all the fields will be busy and parents and grandparents will fill the stands watching their loved ones. "Hopefully the highest level of events playing in East Tennessee will be here in Blount County," Jerry Simmerly said.

The prospect of bureaucratic red tape hindering plans for the Smoky Mountain Athletics complex prompted Cunningham to order a redraft of subdivision rules and zoning ordinances. On Feb. 7 he ordered the codes and rules be redrafted in more understandable language.

He sent a memo Planning Department director John Lamb and Roger Fields, zoning/building commissioner. The memo also went out to Assistant County Mayor Dave Bennett, planning commission chairman Jim Scully, Doug Hancock and county commissioners Gary Farmer and Scott Helton.

Cunningham said on Monday, Feb.19, he specified he wanted a committee formed not to change regulations and rules but to redraft them in more understandable and concise language.

"You don’t need to use a paragraph to say what you could say in a sentence," he said. "People can not, absolutely can not, understand either one of them."

When the regulations threatened to delay the sports complex project, the mayor took action to get a new athletic complex zone created.

The mayor said that when the county started working to create a new sports complex zone for projects like Smoky Mountain Athletics, it appeared it was going to take until "the next millennium" to get it done.

"I think Mr. Simmerly was told it could take six to eight months to accomplish this. I said this is baloney, we’re going to do it in 45 to 60 days," he said. "There’s no need for all this silly read tape. I’m totally frustrated with all this red tape in government - totally."

Cunningham said he ordered that a zone for complexes like this to be drafted to present to the public and the entire county commission.

The planning commission will hear a zone proposal for the complex today, Thursday, Feb. 22, and then set a public hearing between the time of the next intergovernmental and public service meetings. Then the county commission will vote on the new zone either in March or April, Cunningham said.

Cunningham said the overall plan is that the complex would be a commercial venture. "You can just image the sales tax dollars in Blount County coffers off of something like that," he said. "When you look at the thousands of children who would be able to avail themselves of this, this obliterates any argument," he said. "If you love children, certainly you’ll support this newly created athletic complex zone."

Creating a special athletic sports complex zone allows the property to remain free of residential development. "It ought to make people who are fans of the Hunter Growth Study happy because it leaves it all open space and creates revenue for the county," he said. "The main thing is it serves the citizens of Blount County. My big thing is I want it to serve as many citizens of Blount County as it can, not just a limited few."

Regarding the zoning regulations and subdivision language and their redraft, Cunningham said he ask for a rough draft to be on his desk in 60 days.

"We’ve got to make zoning regulations and subdivision ordinances more concise and understandable and not phrased in such as manner to lend themselves to interpretation only a by a couple of persons. We’ve got to fix it so we can cut to the chase and get things done," he said.

Cunningham said the regulations are a convoluted mess. "I’m going to streamline government if it kills me," he said. "I’m going to teach people that government can move at faster than 33 1/3 rpm."

Jerry Simmerly said it was unclear yet whether Parks and Recreation programs could uses the facility.

Joe Huff, director of Maryville Alcoa Blount County Parks and Recreation, said the new complex could be a great benefit to the youth and adults of the community. The tournaments at the complex could bring in more travel teams who could stay in Blount County motels and spend money at area restaurants.

"If they plan on putting commercial establishments where they’re building the fields, it would be a great economic boost for the county," he said.

Huff said that while Parks and Recreation does have a long-term plan for building more fields, they would have to look at the proximity of the new complex and question whether it would be worth their while. Huff said that while the commercial ventures like Smoky Mountain Athletics are geared toward travel teams, Parks and Recreation facilities provides venues for the public at large and tournaments like the Smoky Mountain Classic are the "icing on the cake" that help pay for providing services to the public.

Huff was positive about plans for the new facility. "The bottom line is a facility like that is a plus to the community," he said.

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