Council appears ready to support $5M+ in additional recreation spending

Burlington’s city council has decided to take an unrestrained swing at a multi-million-dollar package of recreation projects, ranging from new pickleball courts to the construction of an entertainment venue at the city’s athletic stadium.

The council ultimately chose to pursue all of these ventures, notwithstanding their prospective price tag of up to $5.7 million, after city staff members presented them at a regularly-scheduled work session on Monday.

Included in the staff’s seven-figure pitch were some projects that the council had explicitly asked the city’s administrators to explore. Other proposals could be traced to sources outside the council and, in at least one instance, hailed from beyond the city’s municipal bureaucracy.

One plan that truly came out of left field was proposal to establish a new entertainment venue at Burlington’s athletic stadium.

David Cheek, the city’s interim manager, attributed this particular idea to Anderson Rathbun – the general manager for the Burlington Sock Puppets, which is the resident baseball club at the city-owned stadium. Rathbun, who was also on hand at the work session, explained that he has been kicking around the idea of an entertainment venue in the hope of turning his team’s seasonal home into more of a year-round attraction.

“The ballpark is designed just to watch baseball,” Rathbun told the council that evening. “It’s not designed for what we want to do which is to watch entertainment.

“This ballpark can be a huge catalyst not just for the east side of Burlington but all of Burlington,” he added, “if it’s activated the right way.”

Rathbun said that this proposed addition could also be equipped with a proper commercial kitchen to replace the makeshift tents that have previously been used for food preparation on the grounds of the stadium.

In addition to the Sock Puppets’ offseason repasts, Cheek told the council that this proposed venue could be used for everything from musical performances to Rotary Club meetings. The city’s interim manager also provided a ballpark estimate of $2 million for the facility’s cost – a quarter of which he acknowledged has been set aside as a contingency.

Cheek went on to encourage the council to hire a single contractor to design and build this new stadium-side entertainment venue in order to expedite the project’s completion. He added that the proposed facility could be ready as soon as May 2023, and he suggested some form of installment financing to cover the cost of the project.

Meanwhile, Cheek credited the council’s own past discussions with another proposal to develop for one or more “synthetic” playing fields at the city’s municipal parks.

Cheek said that a field sodded with Astroturf or some other artificial ground cover would provide Burlington’s younger residents with a more durable playing surface for sports such as soccer, which churn the city’s grass-covered fields into mudholes during the rainy season.

To illustrate the potential of synthetic ground cover, Cheek pointed to his own hometown of Mebane where he had served as city manager prior to his interim assignment in Burlington.

“I talked to Aaron Davis in Mebane and their maintenance has been minimal,” he went on to note of the other community’s synthetic fields. “They’ve had very little wear and tear [on those fields].”

Cheek went on to estimate that a single synthetic playing field could cost the city some $1.3 million. He suggested that one or more of these fields could be readily developed at either Joe Davidson or Springwood Park – the latter of which has already seen city officials devote time and resources to the inundation of traditional, grass-covered fields. In either case, Cheek said these new fields could be ready for use by the summer of 2023.

Cheek also presented a couple of other, smaller endeavors during the city council’s work session. One item that really seemed to pique the group’s interest was the prospect of setting up pickleball courts at sites such as Burlington’s City Park. The city’s interim manager also proposed some new HVAC systems for the indoor recreation facilities at North and Fairchild parks. Cheek acknowledged that these sundry endeavors would cost the city a substantial chunk of change to develop concurrently.

“These are not cheap projects,” he added. “The entertainment venue is estimated at $2 million and the soccer fields are estimated at $1.3 million apiece…We’re recommending you borrow on the pickleball courts and the venue and we recommend that you take the soccer fields out of fund balance.”

The council, for its part, didn’t seem the least bit deterred by the cost of the interim manager’s proposals.

In what proved to be the evening’s summative statement, mayor Jim Butler declared that the whole package of projects appeared to offer something for just about everyone in every corner of Burlington.

“You’re really spreading investment across the entire community,” he added, “ and I’d like to see us do all of them.”

Meanwhile, Burlington’s mayor pro tem Harold Owen urged his colleagues to pursue the even more ambitious project of a recreation center on the east side of town. Owen added that the council could bundle some of Cheek’s smaller proposals in with this center and float the whole bundle as a bond referendum before Burlington’s voters.

Owen’s plug for a bond package didn’t seem to get much traction with the rest of the council.

Its members were nevertheless all in when it came to the interim manager’s projects. In the end, they gave the city’s administrators the go-ahead to pursue the stadium’s proposed entertainment venue with its tentative budget of $2 million. They also agreed to press ahead with two synthetic playing fields at Springwood Park – at an additional cost of $2.6 million.

The council also signed off on the two HVAC projects, which Butler insisted “need to be done,” and it gave staff the all clear to set up 16 pickleball courts – complete with lighting and a canopy so players won’t have to exert themselves in the searing sun. At the behest of councilmember Kathy Hykes the council also agreed to get quotes for a similar set for canopies for the city’s tennis courts.

Councilman Bob Ward was absent from the discussion on Monday.