Proposed sports complex: Out for county, in for Alcoa?

It looks like any future ball playing on more than 200 acres of land near Vonore will have to be in open fields or the backyards of houses.

The sports action, however, may move down the road to Alcoa.

Jerry Simmerly and Frank Bradley, who proposed building a for-profit, multi-use sports complex on property on U.S. 411 South to attract traveling softball, baseball and soccer teams, have asked the three county commissioners sponsoring a motion for zoning that would open the way for that complex to withdraw their motion from County Commission’s agenda.

This didn’t come as news to County Mayor Jerry Cunningham. "I’m not surprised," said Cunningham. "I knew the developers had been talking to Alcoa about locating the complex out there, so I’m not surprised. They’re talking to the aluminum company about some of their property. I think (the city of) Alcoa is really excited to have them because of the revenue they know it will generate."

Melissa Copelan, community affairs manager for Alcoa Inc., said the talks were in their preliminary stages, nothing was definite, and she could not specify which pieces of property were being considered.

"We have been discussing certain pieces of property," said Copelan. "The discussions are very preliminary, and I would characterize it as an exploratory stage."

Bill Hammon, Alcoa assistant city manager, said the city would be happy to talk with Simmerly and Bradley about a new sports complex. He said most of the activity that occurs in Blount County is in the urban core within Maryville and Alcoa.

"Having them close to a population base makes sense to us and if you build them to the size of tournament play, you’re going to want to be close to existing hotels and restaurants so they have a place to stay," he said. "I think we’d be happy to talk to them and see what their criteria are and encourage them to look around closer in the urban core."

Blount Commissioner Scott Helton confirmed that Bradley and Simmerly had asked that he and commissioners Brad Harrison and Gary Farmer withdraw the motion for a new zone. The new zone was needed so the developers could create the multi-use facility, which combined recreation, commercial and short-term residential.

"(Simmerly) asked that we withdraw the motion," said Helton, "which, after talking with Commissioner Farmer and Commissioner Harrison, we will do."

As to whether Simmerly will ask for support later, Helton replied, "He just asked us to withdraw it. He didn't give any indication that he would be back."

The proposal first drew fire when a "Sports Complex District" was proposed that would have allowed a mix of commercial and residential use on the site. Simmerly and Bradley wanted the sports complex to include ball fields, retail stores and short-term lodging, such as hotels.

County Commission referred the original Sports Complex District zoning back to the Blount County Planning Commission in April after citizens protested a series of zoning proposals. The planning commission reworked the zoning requirements to restrict the amount of commercial and residential development in a Sports Complex Zone. The new proposal was expected to pass County Commission in June.

But developers recently indicated that the proposed new Sports Complex District zoning the county commission would consider was too limiting and would hinder financing for the project.

The proposed zoning recommended hard limits on the amount of commercial and residential development allowed in the district. The proposed zoning amendment would limit commercial development to 10 percent of the complex. Residential would be limited to 15 percent.

The Blount County property, 230 acres on U.S. 411 South near Henry Lane, is owned by the Roy Montgomery family. Simmerly's option on the property expires in the middle of July. Bradley had indicted earlier that they would like to do the project somewhere and were exploring other places for the concept.

Helton said Wednesday that since the proposal was brought forward there has been a misconception of what the zone for the sports complex was going to allow. "Whether it will ever happen in the future, I can’t say," Helton said. "Would I like to see it happen in the future? I think Blount County deserves a sports complex of this magnitude."

Cunningham said that throughout the four months since the new zone was proposed to allow the developers to build the complex, some commissioners have said he pushed the idea and instead should have killed it.

"I think some of our commissioners are still on their learning curve and don’t understand the role of the mayor’s office. Those zoning matters could have been killed by me if I told the developers that the proposal wouldn’t fly. But that’s not the job of the mayor," he said. "The mayor is to be a conduit and not a killer of ideas. When an idea comes to commission, they can vote it up, down or tweak it. They do whatever they want."

The mayor said that some of the commissioners have wrongfully said that he was pushing zoning changes. "I never asked one commissioner to vote either way," he said. "I’m troubled those types of comments were made. They’re just not true."

Commissioners heard comments from the public and also debated among themselves the Sports Complex zone and motions for zones regarding density at the April commission meeting.

During the commission meetings where creating the new zone for the sports complex was discussed, members of the Raven Society, a local group of residents committed to preserving the rural and scenic nature of the county, spoke against the complex zone. The mayor disagreed with the group and said that the Montgomery family was poised to sell the property, either for ball fields or subdivisions.

"I understand the Montgomery family is proceeding full steam ahead, and there’s going to be residential development there now," Cunningham said.

"From a personal point of view and knowing the beauty of that piece of property, I hate to see 240 to 250 homes go in there on septic and field lines," he said. "It could have been open space, but the commission has spoken."

Neither Simmerly nor Bradley could be reached for comment.

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