A proposed sports complex in East Gainesville has reignited a fiery decades-long political debate on how to spur economic activity in the area.
City Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut sees the quadrant at Eighth Avenue and Waldo Road as a blank slate begging to be commercialized. She envisions a multimillion-dollar sports complex resting in the heart of East Gainesville.
Some residents are not sold.
Faye Williams, a 67-year-old Porters Community activist, said Waldo Road is not the best location for this project.
“The sports center? Great,” she said. “But the priority should always be on housing. We don’t have enough housing.”
Chestnut’s proposal involves reconstructing Citizens Field, where Gainesville’s first high school football games were played in 1948. It would also add square footage to the Martin Luther King Jr. Multipurpose Center.
She said the city and county would benefit from providing a community hub for neighbors and providing economic revitalization for Gainesville’s underserved community.
“East Gainesville deserves the attention and investment of this initiative,” Chestnut added.
She wants to expand and improve Citizens Field by installing new bleachers, a new track, locker rooms, ticket booths, digital scoreboards, a press box and a concession stand.
In the MLK Center, Chestnut plans for two high school basketball courts, new-and-improved facilities for group fitness classes, community meeting rooms, a senior programming wing, an activities wing and an auditorium. She also suggested connecting the Dwight H. Hunter Pool to the center.
The sports complex would be open for recreational use on weekdays and host tournaments on weekends.
Chestnut wants to involve East Gainesville residents in the planning process, but some neighbors expressed uneasiness with the proposal.
“Where’s the feasibility study?” Sharon Bauer, a 73-year-old East Gainesville resident, asked.
Bauer is confused why the city would spend millions of dollars on a sports complex instead of redeveloping the east side of Waldo Road to support existing businesses and new housing.
She believes Chestnut is oblivious to her interests and the interests of East Gainesville residents.
“She’s taking a dagger and stabbing me and my neighbors in the back,” Bauer said.
For years, Bauer and her neighbors requested minor renovations to Citizens Field and the MLK Center, including installing new bleachers and repairing a leaky roof. A multimillion-dollar sports facility is not what they had in mind.
“Why do they need consultants? Why will they not listen to the neighbors?” she asked. “Listen to us. Listen to us about what we want at that park.”
As District 1’s representative, Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker was enthused about the idea of bringing sports tourism to Gainesville and understands the renovations that Citizens Field requires, but she was concerned about the location of the complex. Traffic dynamics and impacts to surrounding neighborhoods must be analyzed before plans progress, she said.
“The question then becomes, do we actually modify what’s already there?” Duncan-Walker asked. “Do we erase it entirely and build something new?”
Since the meeting, she said she has heard a mixed bag of reactions to the proposal but wants to hear from more of her constituency.
Despite the unknowns, other East Gainesville residents think the sports complex would stimulate economic prosperity.
Tyra Edwards, a 52-year-old East Gainesville community activist known as Ty Loudd, believes it will create jobs, business opportunities and tax revenue in the area. She said the proposal is about equity with the west side of the city, though Chestnut was clear this sports complex will not compete with the facility being constructed in Celebration Pointe.
Edwards has anticipated development on the Waldo Road corridor for years. She said Chestnut finally stepped up to the plate.
Chestnut recommended city staff hire a consultant to explore the scope and cost of the project, but commissioners remain wary about acting too hastily. They will vote on the proposal May 19.
Contact Carissa Allen at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @carissaallenn.
Carissa Allen is a third-year journalism and political science double major. She is excited to continue her work on the Metro desk this semester as the East Gainesville Reporter. In her free time, you can find her scuba diving, working out or listening to a podcast.