Since moving to Columbus in 1987, Mayor Keith Gaskin has created plenty of memories at Propst Park — some more painful than others.
He’s played tennis there, watched his children play youth sports there and covered events there as a journalist with The Dispatch. He even once got hit in the head with a rogue baseball at a Little League game.
“It literally knocked me to the ground,” Gaskin recalled with a hint of nostalgic levity during a press conference Wednesday at City Hall.
Likewise, Ward 4 Councilman Pierre Beard said he played baseball at Propst Park growing up, as did other family members. His grandmother even coached youth sports there.
“I’ve talked to people all over this community and county who have fond memories of that park,” Gaskin said. “(It) has been a big part of Columbus for many years.”
It could also use a facelift, according to Gaskin and Beard — or pretty much anyone else in Columbus you ask — spurring efforts to develop a new master plan to make that happen.
City Engineer Kevin Stafford, who works with the Neel-Schaffer firm, said Wednesday revitalizing Propst Park was first discussed in the early 2000s among a list of area recreation needs.
Many of those listed needs have been met, such as building the Lowndes County Soccer Complex near downtown, but major needs at Propst Park remain unmet after 20 years.
“It’s been on the books for a while,” Stafford said at Wednesday’s press conference. “… This isn’t anything new. It’s really more the next thing on the punch list we need to get to as far as recreation.”
A master plan presented in 2014 included 10 fields with parking, concessions and other amenities, and that plan was scaled back four years later.
At Tuesday’s city council meeting, Stafford focused on the first phase of that plan — building four new baseball fields alongside the Field of Dreams to complete a new five-plex or “wheel.”
“The biggest thing it does is bring a new aesthetic to the front complex,” Stafford said. “It brings a better functionality and it brings tournament grade fields to the city, which currently we don’t have. … The park would still have plenty of room to add a second wheel (of five more fields) in the future.”
Just the fields and lighting — no concession stands, parking, press boxes or other amenities Stafford said the fields really would need — would cost an estimated $2 million to build.
But there’s also the dog park and other facilities at Propst that need upgrading, Gaskin said, to bring the park back to the showplace it once was.
“We don’t want to do it too hodge-podgey,” Gaskin said. “… We want to get it to a point where we’re proud of it.”
‘Let’s get the ball rolling’
That may be easier said than done.
A 2-percent restaurant sales tax will provide the city $1.6 million over four years to spend specifically on recreation. Half of that money is in the bank, with the other half coming over the next two years.
Gaskin said Wednesday the city might consider using part of its $5.6 million in American Rescue Plan Act (COVID-19 relief) funds toward the project — citing that Starkville is spending much of its ARPA on parks since tourism is an allowed usage under federal guidelines.
He is also “aggressively seeking grants” and both he and Beard, who represents the ward in which the park is located, are open to collecting private donations to support the project. Both even talked Wednesday about the possibility of naming the new fields after major donors.
Still, an unlikely source emerged during the press conference, especially considering recent history. Gaskin said he plans to discuss possible investment from Lowndes County.
Lowndes County split from the jointly run Columbus-Lowndes Recreation Authority in 2017 and formed its own recreation department. The acrimonious breakup came after county supervisors questioned parks management and whether the city was paying its fair share each year to operate the joint authority.
Both Gaskin and county board of supervisors president Trip Hairston cautioned that a joint venture at Propst Park would not signal remarriage of the city and county on recreation, but Hairston did not rule out county investment in the park’s revitalization.
“We’re very early in those discussions,” Hairston told The Dispatch Wednesday afternoon. “I’m certainly all ears. … Propst Park is a good park, it’s vital to the city and county and always can be due to its central location, and it needs revitalization. I’m willing to hear (what the city) has to say, and if it’s the will of the (supervisors) to go that route, I’m not going to stand in the way. I might even support it.”
No funding avenue is off the table, Gaskin said, but both he and Beard groused at the idea of issuing bonds for the project.
The mayor and council plan to travel to Vicksburg’s new $20 million park facility to help brainstorm ideas for a Propst master plan. City officials are also seeking public input.
“Once we get community feedback, get a good game plan together and funding possibilities, what moves forward and when it moves forward has all those things in play,” Stafford said.
Beard said he hopes the city will use the money it has available now to start on a good faith effort at Propst Park soon.
“I would like to get something started in the near future to let people know we are very serious,” Beard said. “Let’s get the ball rolling.”
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.