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Manatee County to build new fields for Little League in Palmetto

BRADENTON -- A plan to build three Little League baseball fields by fall 2014 for the North River American Little League will be up for approval by Manatee County commissioners Sept. 11.

"The children of the North River Little League have waited long enough for a set of fields they can be proud of," Manatee County Commissioner Larry Bustle said during a news conference Tuesday at McKechnie Field, where he endorsed the plan. "The Blackstone option presented today is a vision of a baseball complex this community and the children of Palmetto will be proud of and will use for years to come."

The proposal to build three baseball fields northeast of Blackstone Park in Palmetto is the least expensive and fastest option, said Ed Hunzeker, county administrator. It would cost an estimated $3.3 million and take 22 to 24 months to construct the fields, concession stands, parking and related necessities, he said.

The Little League has been playing at two adult softball fields at Blackstone Park for about four years after Palmetto sold its previous home to the county's school board for a new elementary school.

"Unavoidable challenges" throughout the years prevented earlier construction of ball fields, Bustle said, including limited funding and unfavorable land conditions.

"I'm ecstatic about it, we finally got someone saying this is what we are going to do. ... I like this option," said Derek Goforth, North River American Little League president. "Once we see dirt moving, that's when we'll really be thrilled."

County staff evaluated two scenarios this summer. The first -- and now-recommended solution -- was remediating land near Blackstone Park that has been exposed to pesticides from years of farming, and building three new fields there.

The other option involved two steps: building new softball fields at Bennett Park in East Manatee, and relocating the adult players to that location; and then converting Blackstone's two softball fields into Little League fields.

The latter would cost a couple hundred thousand dollars more and take about 25 months to complete, said Hunzeker.

"It's very exciting, it has been a long time coming," said Erika Blaney, North River American Little League board member.

Her two stepchildren, ages 11 and 14, have been members of the league since they were each 5 or 6 years old, she said.

"They were thrilled, very excited to have a place that they can call their own and not have to share it with adults," she said. "I think it's a great accomplishment. ... It's nice to see something like this finally come about after so many years."

The plan that will be recommended to the board of commissioners involves removing the top six inches of sod and bringing in two feet of clean dirt from the county's landfill to place on top of the fields.

"I'm really excited for all the residents and kids," Palmetto Mayor Shirley Groover Bryant said.

The $3.3 million includes land remediation, design, permitting, utilities, concession stands and fields construction. Design plans have not been finalized, so it's possible that as plans move along the price tag may increase, Hunzeker said.

Palmetto has $800,000 reserved for the construction of the fields. Officials said they hope community partners will help fund the construction.

The county will also consider loaning about $2 million from the county revenues fund to the park impact fees fund. That money would then be paid back in 2015 when park impact fees become available, Hunzeker said.

The new Little League fields will be "one of the nicest parks the county has ever built," he said.

Miriam Valverde, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7024. Follow her on Twitter @MiriamValverde.