City, County meet to discuss new sports complex
Months after discussions surrounding a possible new sports and recreation complex in Port St. Joe resurfaced, the Gulf County Board of County Commissioners and the Port St. Joe city commissioner gathered publicly to discuss the project’s details for the first time.
At a joint city and county workshop held on August 25, the elected officials largely expressed support for the project, dubbed the Field of Dreams.
“The sole purpose of this meeting is to kick start discussions about a new recreation facility — an updated modern facility and a safe facility for our children,” said Port St. Joe Mayor Rex Buzzett, opening the meeting.
“Yesterday, I believe it was Southport I saw on the television getting a $10 million facility. Then there was Callaway,” he continued. “And hopefully next it’ll be Port St. Joe.”
The workshop gave officials that opportunity to discuss differences in opinion they felt were hindering the project’s progress — namely a lacking consensus on how the project should be funded.
These disagreements over funding are largely rooted in the project’s decade-long history.
The Field of Dreams project originated in the early 2000s, when the city, determining that they were outgrowing their existing baseball and softball fields, drafted plans for a sprawling recreational facility. They planned to build the facility with assistance from the county and the Tourism Development Council.
The project got as far as getting the land set aside. But, ultimately, the parties were unable to work together to secure enough funding to make it happen.
Discussions of the Field of Dreams resurfaced in 2017, resurrected by now Chairman of the Gulf County Board of County Commissioners Sandy Quinn and Gulf County Commissioner Phil McCroan, who led a charge to improve the city’s sports facilities.
However, the city and county at that time decided that a better course of action would be to improve the city’s existing 10th Street facilities, not to pursue the Field of Dreams.
The 10th street improvements were derailed by a lawsuit launched by residents in the area, who claimed it would worsen traffic and stormwater threats in the area.
The funding originally set aside by the county for the project was directed into alternative projects, and the land set aside for the 10th street expansion was sold.
In February of this year, Tim and Stephanie Peterson brought concerns about lacking sports and recreation facilities to the city commissioners at their Feb. 15 meeting. Since, several city commissioners have declared the Field of Dreams complex one of their top priorities.
In April, Port St. Joe city commissioners voted to set aside $1 million federal Covid-19 recovery dollars for the project. They asked the County to make the same financial contribution, citing the number of out-of-city children who would use the new complex.
This money, Port St. Joe Mayor Rex Buzzett said, would be used to get construction on the project started, which he and other city officials feel is much overdue.
But county officials expressed concerns that with the project’s high price tag, $2 million would not be enough to get the project well and securely off the ground.
At the August 25 workshop, this complex history was brought up on several occasions.
Port St. Joe Commissioner Scott Hoffman criticized what he saw as county inaction on the matter, saying “at that lawsuit, it was decided that the best thing to do, or the direction that the city went with, was to reapply that money that was offered by the county to the Field of Dreams. And that just ended up not happening.”
“… So we need to focus on if the county is willing to find the matching funds.”
To which county officials responded that they support the project, but prefer to have more secure funding sources before jumping in.
“I am 100 percent for this project, but I was speaking on the business end,” said County Commissioner Ward McDaniel in response to Hoffman’s comments. “If we go into this, we’ve got to go all the way. We’ve got to make a commitment to know what we’re doing. You don’t jump out of a tree into the water not knowing how deep it is.”
However, both parties expressed that overcoming these differences was in the best interest of moving the project forward, and several officials made comments to this effect.
“The past is the past. I think it’s time for us to set all that stuff apart and do something for our community, for our kids,” said Port St. Joe Commissioner Eric Langston. “I think it’s important for us to focus on that instead of beating each other up. We need to come together and do what’s right for the city, for something that we need.”
“… We need to move forward. I’m tired of kicking the can.”
Agreeing to put the past behind them, city and county commissioners discussed potential solutions to their funding dispute, including grant funding, legislative appropriations and tourism tax dollars.
No resolutions were expressly reached during the workshop. The parties agreed to meet on the issue further in future workshops and to look further into some of the funding ideas outlined in the meeting.