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Sports complex plan raises concerns on many fronts

Posted: November 23, 2011 3:57 p.m.
Updated: November 25, 2011 5:00 a.m.

As Chair of the local Let’s Move Cities & Towns, the White House initiative targeting our national epidemic of childhood obesity, I have tried to educate myself about how to best serve the well being of the next generation.  To this end, Let’s Move, partnering with KershawHealth and Eat Smart Move More, with Councilwoman Alfred Mae Drakeford as our presiding muse, recently held the first Mini Olympics of Kershaw County at Camden’s Doby Complex; we plan a student garden for the spring, and other programs not yet announced.

I am replying to Susan Hagins White’s Nov. 18 letter advocating a multi-million-dollar Sports Complex/YMCA for Camden’s children. She advances several arguments that beg comment.

Can we agree that we all want the best for our children, especially since we are now facing a national epidemic of obesity and diabetes?

The conversation is not about whether the Y is a good idea. In the appropriate context, the Y or Sports Complex would be a fantastic idea. The operative questions: Whom will it really benefit? What will it cost? How will it be paid for? What revenue will it return?

Beyond all that, the real issue that has 90 percent of our Camden population up in arms: The perceived lack of openness in our City government 

Many outstanding citizens believe that the project was a power play by City officials, that hundreds of thousands of dollars from the hospitality tax intended to build Camden’s economy have been hijacked. 

To respond to Mrs. White’s letter, Paddy Bell’s more than 1,000 signatures requesting a referendum on the “Y,” an exhausting labor of love for the City that’s apparently been shelved, suggests that civic concern is not restricted to “retirees with free time,” as Mrs. White characterizes some of Camden’s most philanthropic citizens, many of them former CEOs, most of them grandparents. Speaking for myself as a perceived retiree, I am self-employed and make time for what I judge to be important. It’s not “free time,” it’s focused time on behalf of community. Could we drop the name-calling?

Parenthetical question: in ongoing discussions about recreational facilities we sometimes talk about the Sports Complex and sometimes the “Y.” Which is it? Why the confusion? Would someone please clarify terms and more importantly, intentions?

Mrs. White mentions sports tournaments in seven S.C. cities that draw out-of-town participation and asks why we can’t do as well here. In these cities she describes enviable “top-notch gymnasiums, beautiful fields with lights, and indoor walking tracks.”

In Camden alone, under the superb direction of James Davis of the County Parks and Recreation Department with the help of Athletic Director Shane Duncan, we enjoy 19 city parks, most of them with playgrounds. We have 10 tennis courts (eight of them lighted), seven basketball courts (three lighted), and an outdoor pool. To offer a few examples of our assets, Doby Complex includes four lighted softball fields, seven soccer fields, a playground, concession buildings and restrooms; it also includes four tee-league fields. Legion Park, adjacent to the National Guard Armory, includes one major size lighted baseball field, concession and restroom. Scott Park has four lighted tennis courts, a 1/4 mile running track, a one-mile walking trail, four volleyball courts, a playground, a picnic shelter and restroom. Woodward Park has two lighted tennis courts, one lighted soccer field, five baseball/softball fields, a golf course, picnic shelter and restrooms.

Some parents complain that our playing fields are not maintained well enough for regional tournaments. If true, maybe that’s where some of our money should go. Has the City conducted a study outlining how much it would take to bring our playing fields up to speed? As so many Chronicle-Independent letter writers have commented, why can’t we build on what we have?

When it comes to constructing million-dollar buildings, we just don’t have the numbers of people here to generate the reported 5-6 million a complete Sports Complex would cost. With reference to the cities hosting tournaments, in the 2010 census Camden numbered roughly 7,000 people. Columbia has almost 20 times our population, Rock Hill 10 times, Aiken and Summerville four times. Even Easley has 20,000 people, almost three times the Camden population.

With respect to childhood fitness, studies argue that exercise is but one factor and will have little effect if the obese child snacks most of the day. As pediatrician Dr. Earl Bryant has stated so eloquently, if he could eliminate one item in the child’s diet it would be juice. As nutritional scientists have warned us, we need to wage war on the amount of sugar our children (and we) consume. Beyond that, we have a proverbial elephant in the room: Through no fault of their own, children and we too are consuming larger and larger amounts of animal products riddled with steroids and hormones and chemicals. Even the White House won’t confront this issue -- no big surprise -- but it would seem that diet remains more central to the issue of childhood fitness than a recreation center, not that we all don’t need to move more. 

If a perceived objective is to rescue underachieving teens from gangs and drugs, why are we not discussing the successful Boys & Girls Club rather than the proposed Y/ Sports Complex? The Boys & Girls Clubs of the Midlands operate 31 Clubs, eight summer camps, a teen center, and a Zoo Teen program with Riverbanks Zoo.  The Clubs serve more than 5,000 members in the Midlands area each year. Of this number, they welcome more than 2,000 members through their doors each day, and each young person often stays for more than three or four hours per visit. The Boys & Girls Clubs are by design accessible and affordable to all.

For many people who care deeply about the direction of this City, the virtually invisible Town Green has been the unfortunate tipping point in the discussion and has critically affected conversation about a Sports Complex.  The City, without citizen input, spent a reported 1.5 million dollars on the Green, arguing that it would revitalize the downtown.  And where are we? 

This year’s City budget, moreover, allocates $115,000 for maintenance of the Green, nine times the money allocated to Historic Camden and nine times the money granted to the Fine Arts Center, both demonstrable tourist magnets that, if developed, could draw many more thousands of visitors -- the tourist dollars Mrs. White references.

Mrs. White bemoans the failure of the 1-penny tax, suggesting that benighted reactionaries voted it down.  News flash: If the 1-penny tax had been restricted to a recreation center and perhaps to the proposed outpatient health center it conceivably could have passed. Instead, citizens were asked to finance countywide projects; notably, a $4 million library in Elgin and a water project in Bethune. In this economy where increasing numbers of people in South Carolina worry about maintaining health care and putting food on the table, not to mention the hordes of abandoned animals, voters said no. 

In our American culture we say, almost as a joke, “It’s the economy, Stupid.” Well, it is.

Given that we don’t (yet) have a Toyota plant here, and we don’t (yet) have Harvard’s southern campus, what opportunities will attract young families with children? Will they move here for a Sports Complex if we offer no jobs? 

One bright spot: At the moment, the perhaps under-acknowledged equine business and sports entrepreneurs like Joe Cantey bring millions of dollars to the City. Janice Coley’s Camden Equestrian magazine and Camden Media Co.’s new magazine, The Camden Horse, are improving the profile.

We citizens must come together, perhaps at first in small groups, to ask ourselves where we are going, what we want to build, and how can we arrive at our goals and objectives. As with all great peoples -- and we are clearly that, we can decide in advance that we will discipline ourselves to avoid infighting, to arrive at goals in harmony, to work together at all costs and to move forward. 

In these discussions, if City officials want to join the people who elected them, great. We would welcome their support. 

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