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Thursday, November 30, 2023

'You don't know our story': Community expresses frustrations, hopes for Eastside sports complex

Residents spoke over a two-day workshop

<p> Community members express their thoughts on the proposed East Gainesville sports complex at the Martin Luther King Jr. Multipurpose Center on Wednesday, July 12, 2023.</p><p><br/><br/><br/></p>

 Community members express their thoughts on the proposed East Gainesville sports complex at the Martin Luther King Jr. Multipurpose Center on Wednesday, July 12, 2023.

Tired of settling for crumbs, Gainesville residents shared their dreams for the developing Eastside sports complex with city staff during the project’s first public engagement effort last week. 

The city of Gainesville hosted two community workshops to receive feedback from locals on the proposed East Gainesville sports complex July 11 and July 12 at the MLK Multipurpose Center. 

The Gainesville City Commission voted unanimously to move forward with the sports facility in June 2022. The proposal calls for renovations to Citizens Field and the expansion of the MLK Multipurpose Center on Eighth Avenue and Waldo Road.

Leader of the initiative City Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut has championed the renovations since she joined the commission in February 2022. 

With over 100 individuals attending the July 11 workshop, Chestnut said she was overjoyed to hear from so many people of different backgrounds who are passionate about the project.

“The Eastside needs economic development,” Chestnut said. “Eastside citizens need a good, healthy sports facility.”

While the complex will mainly serve East Gainesville, Chestnut said it must also generate profit through tourism so its services can remain cost-free or affordable for locals. 

“If we have to have a tournament every now and then for revenue, we're going to have to do that,” she said.

Funding for the complex will come from sources like the Gainesville Community Reinvestment Area and the Gainesville Wild Spaces and Public Places tax, Chestnut said. 

The city may also secure a general obligation bond, a municipal bond that allows local governments to raise funds for initiatives that may not produce direct revenue, for the facility.

City staff hired Johnson Consulting, a Chicago-based real estate and hospitality consulting firm, to complete a market analysis and financial feasibility study for the proposal in November 2022. 

Brandon Dowling, the sports practice leader for Johnson Consulting, presented some of the data collected for the study at the workshops to illustrate the local market value of the proposed complex. 

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The study results identify sports tourism as the primary reason people visit Gainesville, Dowling said, highlighting how an expanded MLK Multipurpose Center has the potential to benefit the local economy. 

For market penetration, Johnson Consulting estimates 121,706 potential sports participants, ages six and up, could be reached with the upgraded facility, Dowling added.

Dowling emphasized the importance of the community’s perspective to the longevity and success of the facility in between data points. 

“The public engagement piece of [the study] is paramount,” Dowling said at Wednesday's workshop. “This is something that is going to be in your backyards so we need to understand what you all want.”

Johnson Consulting also created a survey to collect public opinion on the project, which will be open until July 19. 

Over the two days, a single microphone passed around the MLK Multipurpose Center’s gymnasium amplified the voices of dozens of residents with different visions and opinions on the sports complex. 

Desires for the reconstruction of Citizens Field, conservation of greenspace, accessible parking, accommodation for pickleball and roller derby and indoor and outdoor swimming pools dominated the two-day workshop’s public comment.

Mary Ann Hastings, a 71-year-old Gainesville resident, plays pickleball at the MLK Multipurpose Center and attended the workshop Wednesday to support the creation of spaces for older adults to socialize without cost. 

She feared the possibility of loneliness and missing work after she retired roughly four years ago, she said. 

“I came here the Monday after retirement and started playing pickleball,” she said. “I haven’t thought about my job for a second.”

Hastings would like to see indoor courts designed for pickleball with the MLK Multipurpose Center expansion, she said.

Various K-12 school sports coaches attended both workshops to advocate for resources for their players, including Cedderick Daniels, Hawthorne High School’s head baseball coach. 

Daniels pushed for the city to reconstruct Citizens Field, which is prone to flooding, and to expand the number of courts in the MLK Multipurpose Center so different sports can practice at once.

Barriers like a flooded field hinder talented young athletes at Eastside schools from achieving success in the future, he said.

“This was a good idea 30 years ago,” he said Wednesday. “It’s about the kids in this community at the end of the day.”

Not all residents have full faith in the project and the city’s efforts. 

Bill Whitney, a 73-year-old carpenter and East Gainesville resident, worries increased tourism could affect traffic in his neighborhood. He is also uncertain whether the city should fund renovations if it neglects existing resources. 

“How will [the city] maintain a larger, more expensive building when they don’t maintain what they already have,” Whitney asked Tuesday. “I walked up here, and the building on the other side of the playground is falling apart.”

Carrie Parker-Warren, an 82-year-old retired high school administrator, thanked the city for giving residents a platform through the workshop, but she also criticized the lack of previous opportunities for the East Gainesville community to be involved in city government initiatives. 

“Stop giving the Eastside crumbs,” she said at Tuesday’s meeting. “You don’t know our story, but we know your story.”

She also urged the city to engage with young people in the development of the project, as youth will benefit most from the complex, she said.

The city hired a traffic consultant and plans to hold focus groups with specific demographics, like youth, to address the community’s concerns about the complex, Chestnut said. 

Johnson Consulting will present the finished feasibility study, which will include suggestions for the sports complex backed by data and community consensus, to the Gainesville City Commission July 20.

Contact Amanda at Follow her on Twitter @amandasfriedman.

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Amanda Friedman

Amanda Friedman is a senior journalism major and the Enterprise Editor at The Alligator. She previously wrote for the Avenue, Metro and University desks. When she isn't reporting, she loves watching coming-of-age films and listening to Ariana Grande. 

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