During its meeting Tuesday, the Columbus City Council discussed efforts to renovate Propst Park, something city leaders have been talking about for the last two decades.
To date, however, that talk has not generated much change. Aside from the addition of a dog park in 2013 and a handicap-accessible baseball/softball field funded through a combination of public and private funds in 2018, there have been few updates to the park.
Meanwhile, poor upkeep of the property was cited as a primary reason for the split in the city’s and county’s joint parks operations in 2017.
The county is currently working on plans for a $15 million sportsplex on 89 acres it purchased west of the Tombigbee River.
Anyone with roots in Columbus understands the important role Propst Park has played in the city’s history. Generations of Columbus and county residents grew up on those playing fields.
Its prominent presence on the city’s primary east-west corridor is a reflection of the health of the city — for better or worse. Much as it is with Leigh Mall, another important aesthetic and symbolic feature of the city, a modern, vibrant renaissance at Propst Park would create a positive narrative for our community.
The current plans for Propst Park, as it is with the county’s planned sportsplex, revolve around adding tournament-quality baseball and softball fields. The city is eyeing four new fields; the county has plans for up to eight fields.
We support efforts to restore Propst Park to its former status as a place where our citizens — especially our children — can thrive in healthy, family-friend activities.
And perhaps more importantly, we support efforts to galvanize community support for change at Propst Park.
But we urge caution when it comes to making softball/baseball fields the default strategy in that effort.
Why? There is ample evidence that shows that team sports participation is in a state of decline.
“State of Play 2021,” a study of youth sports conducted by Sports & Fitness Industry Association, the Aspen Institute and the Utah State University Families In Sports Lab shows regular team sports participation has declined across every demographic — age, race, family income — since 2012.
In the 6-12 age group, boys’ regular team sports participation has declined by a sobering 12 percent. The girls’ rate has declined by 4 percent.
Among kids ages 13-17, those declines are 7 and 2 percent respectively.
Interestingly, the same study shows that more kids are playing sports — an increase of 3.2 percent among kids 6-12 and 3.5 percent for kids 13-17.
The study indicates that kids are more inclined to participate in individual sports or play team sports on a more occasional basis. Doesn’t it make sense that our recreation facilities reflect that?
If fewer kids are playing team sports on a regular basis it seems to us counter-intuitive that both the county and the city are looking to build facilities for those sports.
The duplication of efforts — and opportunity to collaborate — between the county and city seem obvious.
Board of Supervisors president Trip Hairston said he understands the importance of Propst Park and is open to discussing the possibility of working with the city on those efforts.
We encourage our county and city officials to coordinate league and tournament facility planning rather than pour funds into duplicate facilities that may not serve the recreation needs of today’s children.
There are many other parks to draw inspiration from.
Shelby Farms, situated between Memphis and the suburbs east of the city, comes to mind as a wonderfully-planned park that provides a variety of activities, including pavilions for cookouts, fishing, dirt bike racing, walking trails, horseback riding, large open green spaces and a whimsical, world-class playground.
It’s easy to envision Propst Park’s tall pine trees providing shade for similar activities right here in Columbus.
Mostly-empty baseball fields will not achieve the goal of restoring Propst Park to its former glory.
In fact, it may only serve to be an expensive nod to a status quo that is no longer as relevant as we remember.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.