By KEVIN CHIRI
Slidell news bureau
SLIDELL – Two years of work behind the scenes by a newly-created Slidell recreation district is beginning to go public with the prospect of a large, area facility to be built that would include a variety of sports.
Recreation District #16 was created by the St. Tammany Parish Council in 2009, but didn’t do much until a seven-member board was appointed in 2011. The group began meeting over two years ago and working on a plan that would initially build what they hope to be a “world-class sports facility” in the Slidell area.
After raising $75,000 and hiring a top-rated consulting firm, the group will hold two nights of public meetings on Tuesday and Wednesday, June 24 and 25, when they will release the early findings of the study, and seek input from local citizens about what they see as the needs of the community. The meetings will begin at 6:30 p.m. on those two nights at the SMH Founders Building, located at 1150 Robert Blvd.
District #16 encompasses most of the eastern portion of St. Tammany Parish, including Lacombe and Pearl River, along with Slidell.
Rec. Dist. #16 Chairman Sharon Hewitt said the group spent two years seeking funding so they could hire a highly-respected consulting company that specializes in park and recreation work. Thanks to donations from organizations such as the Northshore Harbor Center, the St. Tammany Tourist Commission, the St. Tammany Economic Development Foundation and more, the district secured $75,000 to pay for the study.
Ballard*King & Associates, based in Highlands Ranch, Co., was selected as the firm to conduct a five-month study into recreation needs for the Slidell area. Their fee of $65,000 will bring the district a comprehensive analysis of the eastern St. Tammany area, and recommendations about what should be built here to supplement the recreation opportunities already offered by private organizations.
Ballard*King will be three months into the study by the end of June when the public meetings are held, but plans to release their initial findings at that time. Final study results are expected Aug. 28.
The Slidell area is unique in that virtually all little league sports are headed by private organizations. Hewitt said they want to be very clear that the goal of the Rec. District is not to replace those leagues in any way.
“We are here to support those leagues and provide more facilities, since most of us on this board believe we need more places for the kids to play,” Hewitt said. “The local leagues we have here, especially considering they were started by local people and get very little government support, are awesome. They do a wonderful job and we are only here to support them.”
The seven-member board, along with Hewitt, is made up of Sean Burkes, Pam McLelland, Raymond Sanders, Mike Gambrell, Shawn Doll and Terry Kendall.
“We’re basically a bunch of parents who had kids play youth sports, and we’re passionate about improving the facilities we have here,” Hewitt explained. “Most of us agree that there are not enough places to play, for most sports. Even the junior high teams struggle to find fields to practice on, so this plan can help them as well.”
Hewitt, an 18-year Shell executive with excellent experience heading major projects for that company, was a homemaker in recent years who had volunteered for many different groups. Her experience as an administrator has proven helpful in her new role as chairman of the Rec. District.
“I have learned a lot about ethics and laws so we do everything properly,” she said. “But I had experience running big projects—building oil platforms and wells—so I know that is helping in this new position.”
The Rec. District board has met with leadership from all the local little leagues, while also visiting with leadership from regional recreation districts from Hammond to Gulfport.
“Pelican Park in Mandeville began just as we are doing now,” she said. “They got a millage passed, built a few fields and a gym, and then continued to grow to be the massive facility they have there now.”
Hewitt said the improvement in recreational facilities that a community offers is a key part of drawing top businesses to an area.
“The top things businesses look for when considering where they will relocate is schools and recreation,” she said. “The better our recreational facilities are, the more people we draw here, and the more a business might consider this area. This is about economic development as much as helping our kids.”
Hewitt said the committee has no pre-conceived ideas of where the entire study will lead them, noting that their studies to date have shown lacrosse is the fastest growing sport in the country. There are now several lacrosse leagues in western St. Tammany, but none in the Slidell area.
“Who knows? Maybe we need to provide a way for lacrosse to start here,” she said. “The one thing everyone agrees on is that we have a great need for more sports facilities. This is a quality of life issue and our group is simply the facilitator for this process.”
Hewitt acknowledged the funding mechanism for whatever the study leads to would likely be a millage proposal, although other ways to secure funds for the facility will all be considered.
She said the study is aiming at providing a master plan for 20-years, and will include drawings for proposed facilities that can be brought to the public so they can clearly see what they will be asked to support.