Jo Anne Embleton
Jacksonville Daily Progress
Between opening day of the local baseball/softball association and FitCOUNTY Cherokee's inaugural “Day in the Park” program, the Jacksonville Athletic Complex will be hopping on Saturday, and city parks crews have been scrambling to make sure the facility has on its prettiest face.
“As we've had time from our regular responsibilities, we've been straightening up here,” performing maintenance upkeep and landscaping project to beautify site, City Parks and Recreation Director Ben Briley said of the complex, located at 1923 Byrd Rd.
“Right now, we're trying to improve the looks for opening day,” he added, pointing to a flowerbed gracing the foot of an entry sign where his co-worker Trace Sanchez was planting celosia and red salvia among gazania and roses.
“We probably spend about $700 to $800 (on landscaping), and we try to make as many maintenance repairs in-house as possible – every season we find water leaks and leaky irrigation on the ball fields, so we expect new hiccups … they're part of the package.”
Last year, the city constructed a new cinderblock building that houses a concession stand and restrooms, as well as the new entry way sign and enlarged and repaved the front parking lot.
Earlier this month city crews planted eight Shumard oak saplings that will provide shaded parking in years to come at the front of the athletic complex, which consists roughly of 11 acres of playing fields, plus four additional practice fields at the back of the property, Briley said.
“We've got one field that is a dedicated softball field with a dirt infield and three grass infields that are multipurpose fields,” he said.
It is one of 10 sites that make up the Jacksonville parks system, and the only one used by the Jacksonville Baseball and Softball Association, which organizes the 12-division summer sports league for boys and girls aged three to 15.
“JBSA does a fabulous job (handling) the administrative side of the games, and maintaining the fields, too, and we pitch in whenever they need some help and at the opening of the season, and (the county) Adult Probation department kicks in a lot of help, too,” Briley said.
Ricky Allen Carpenter, JBSA president and a Cherokee County Adult Probation Office employee, added that theirs is an unusual working relationship “compared to the towns around us.”
Programs in Bullard, Rusk, Alto and White-house operate have private fields, unlike Jack-sonville.
“I think it's because we're just willing to all work together for the sake of the kids,” Carpenter said.
“I can't say enough about what the city has done for us. It's real good to know your city's behind you. A lot of times when I ask them for something that we need out here, they might not be able to get it to us right then, but we'll get it.”
The city considers itself “very, very fortunate” to enjoy such a strong relationship with JBSA and the county in this effort.
“It just makes it better for the kids when we all collaborate,” he said.
Both men are excited about Saturday's events at the complex.
On the sports side of things, a friendly softball competition will be held among coaches beginning about 9:30 a.m., while “Day in the Park” events kick off at 9 a.m. and feature an appearance by Jacksonville native and NFL quarterback Luke McCown, along with a plethora of goodies provided by nearly two dozen vendors as part of a local health initiative designed to “empower and encourage healthy lifestyles one person at a time.
“We just thought it was a good idea (to invite FitCOUNTY organizers to be part of opening day), because the more people we can get here, the more will see what” good things are happening in the city, Carpenter said.
In addition to the items provided by “Day in the Park” vendors, free hamburgers and hot dogs will be furnished by the local Woodmen of the World Lodge.
“We've got a good relationship with them, and they simply asked, 'Why don't we do this for you?'” he recalled.
From city leaders to the residents themselves – and everyone in be-tween – people have given children of Jacksonville their overwhelming support, Car-penter added.
“The city helps us a lot” through support of the summer athletic programs, he said, adding, “and Mo? He loves the kids. He loves baseball.”
This season, approximately 450 T-ball, baseball and softball players utilize the athletic complex.
They'll meet four times a week for both practice and regular games, with make-up games planned on Saturdays, Briley said.
As a parent, he feels the programs offered at the complex an invaluable part of his son's childhood.
“It's a hoot (watching) the T-ball games, (which) are sometimes like watching a herd of chickens,” he laughed. “But they learn along the way.”
The summer leagues are “a way to keep children active and … out of trouble, especially when they get 10-11-12 years on up, because the more they're out here, the less likely they are to be on the streets,” Carpenter said.
“And I like to feel that they've learned a lesson on how to work hard while having fun with it – they learn good sportsmanship and camaraderie” along the way, he said.
The games also tend to build community at different levels.
“We see whole families of parents, grandparents, siblings and aunts and uncles,” he said, as Briley pointed out numerous sponsorship signs lining the fences surrounding the fields.
“You can see the just how involved our community is just by looking at those signs,” he said.
Games at the Jacksonville Athletic Complex are free of cost during regular season.
Briley encouraged residents to try to make at least one game this summer.
“Oh,” he grinned, “you can't beat little kids running around, chasing a ball. There's nothing like it.”