County and city commissioners met to discuss the potential for an expansion and overhaul of the Bennie Roberts Ballfields on 10th Street in Port St. Joe.

 

County and Port St. Joe officials sounded as if speaking from the same page during a workshop Monday, but the devil, as always, will be in the details.

County and city commissioners met to discuss the potential for an expansion and overhaul of the Bennie Roberts Ballfields on 10th Street in Port St. Joe.

The issue arose from discussions in a Board of County Commissioners meeting with Commissioner Sandy Quinn, Jr. wondering if revenue generated by the fifth penny of Tourist Development Council bed tax could be used for such an effort.

That led to bringing city commissioners into the discussion and Monday’s workshop.

County administrator Don Butler began by mapping out the broad strokes of a path forward, which commissioners seemed to universally embrace.

But David Warriner, chairman of the TDC advisory board, and county attorney Jeremy Novak cautioned commissioners on the exact language enacting the fifth penny, which was put in place to fund parks and a sports complex.

The reality is, both said, any project must promote tourism as a central element.

At one time, as Quinn and other commissioners noted, the sports complex was to be located on 60 acres across U.S. 98 from Sacred Heart Hospital on the Gulf.

That land was donated to Port St. Joe for recreational pursuits and at one time the city and county had an interlocal agreement on moving forward on a sports complex.

The national, and local, economy intervened.

While that remains a pie for another sky, Butler said renovations and improvements to the 10th Street complex, using, at least in part, fifth-penny revenue, could fit within the spirit and intent of the ordinance enacting the penny and the early vision for the sports complex.

The first step, Butler said, would be putting together a master plan, matching budget items to that plan and seeking funding, with a phased approach to construction.

And ultimately a new interlocal agreement.

“We could work it out in phases and over a relatively short period of time achieve what we want to achieve,” Butler said.

Deputy administrator Michael Hammond said he was charged with earmarking roughly $1 million in fifth-penny revenue in the next two years to meet the proposed budget on the county side.

Butler said the county and city would have to add to that by “maximizing” efforts and opportunities to secure state parks and recreation grants.

In addition, two potential changes to the landscape should be considered, Butler said.

One would be closing that segment of 10th Street, and potentially Eighth Street, that borders the ballfields to facilite expansion and the inclusion of sufficient parking.

City commissioners generally agreed with that, though they also wanted to solicit input from residents of the neighborhood.

Additionally, Butler proposed for consideration placing pipe and fill the stormwater canal that runs along one end of the complex.

“If we are going to do it we need to do it right the first time,” said Mayor Bo Patterson of the overall project.

There were some caveats to the universal plaudits from commissioners.

County Commissioner Freddie Whitfield said the fifth penny was put in place to benefit all county parks and use of the revenue should be “inclusive” and not solely directed at one park.

“We have numerous parks that are in disrepair,” he added.

And Novak cautioned commissioners to consider that the ordinance, and state statute, guiding the implementation of the fifth penny goes beyond bricks and mortar and requires “promotion” to bolster heads in beds.

Warriner said while he appreciated the cooperation between city and county spotlighted by the workshop, he had his reservations.

“I have real concerns that we be careful with how we spend the money,” Warriner said.

In short, people from outside the county need to come to and enjoy the finished facility, he said.

Yes, it would be nice to update the 10th Street park for the local residents who use it, but the TDC’s charge is luring people from outside the community to the community.

“Our job is to spend money to bring other people here,” Warriner said.

The failure to adhere fully to state law and local ordinance could mean the park project is ultimately placed on the shoulders of property taxpayers.

Additionally, removing a chunk of the TDC budget for the 10th Street project would mean less dollars for maintenance, Leave No Trace and other work on the beaches.

“Money removed will have to be replaced somehow,” Warriner said.

Commissioners agreed to move forward with the drafting of a master plan with input from both city and county officials.

The plan will include a budget, timeline and phases for construction of various elements of the plan.