Whitfield commissioners expected to buy more land for Riverbend Park

Charles Oliver, The Daily Citizen, Dalton, Ga.
·4 min read

Apr. 9—Work continues on building Riverbend Park, a $13 million park off the south bypass near Southeast Whitfield High School, but members of the Whitfield County Board of Commissioners are already looking toward the park's future.

When commissioners meet Tuesday at 6 p.m. at Stage 123 in downtown Dalton, they are scheduled to vote on purchasing 20 acres of land at Sage Way adjacent to the site of the park from AQM Farm of Birmingham, Alabama.

Mark Mitchell, one of the owners of AQM Farm, said the 20 acres was their family farm where cattle were raised.

"After my parents passed away, we talked about a lot of things regarding the land," he said. "I talked about building a house there. But we just let it sit there. We got rid of the working farm part of it."

Mitchell said he and his siblings decided it was time to sell the property.

"We got a great price, $4,200 an acre," said Board of Commissioners Chairman Jevin Jensen. "That's pretty good for land that is fairly level. Right now, at Westside Park, we are locked in. We don't have any room to grow. We don't want to have that same problem at Riverbend Park. We don't have any plans for this land at this time. But if we ever need to expand Riverbend Park, to add soccer fields or more parking, we will have the room to expand. This land was for sale, and if somebody else got it, it would lock us in."

Commissioner Greg Jones said he "will probably" vote to buy the land.

"It's a reasonable price," he said. "We weren't out looking for land, but we saw this was for sale. We aren't looking to put anything in there, but if at some point the county needs to expand the park this will be nice to have."

Commissioner Robby Staten said he is still studying the proposal but he doesn't oppose the concept of acquiring property for future park expansion.

Commissioner Barry Robbins did not immediately return a telephone message Friday afternoon.

The 55-acre park will include one soccer/football field, four baseball fields, a walking trail and two gyms inside a community center. The main entrance to the park will be near the traffic signal at the south bypass and Hill Road, but a secondary entrance to handle overflow traffic is planned off Collins Drive.

The park is being funded by a four-year, $66 million Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) approved by county voters in 2020. A SPLOST is a 1% sales tax on most goods sold in the county.

Shelley Carl, who lives in the Antioch area near the park, said on Thursday she's happy to hear that work on the park is underway.

Charles O'Neal, another Antioch area resident, said the park will reduce the need for area children to travel elsewhere for youth sports.

The park was the No. 1 priority presented by the Whitfield County Parks and Recreation Department in 2019 to a citizens advisory committee that drafted a proposed 2020 SPLOST projects list.

"We've lost fields down there, and this will help us replace those fields and grow our programs," said Parks and Recreation Department Director Brian Chastain.

The department no longer had use of six football and baseball fields owned by Whitfield County Schools that it used for its programs because of the construction of the new Eastbrook and Valley Point middle schools.

Data that Chastain provided showed that since 2012 between 3,000 and 4,000 children each year had taken part in the department's baseball, basketball, cheer, football and soccer programs, with 26% of those children coming from the south side of the county.

Chastain said more children might participate if they had easier access to facilities.

"I don't have any hard data, but I have had a few people tell me that they don't want to come up here (to Edwards Park)," he told the citizens advisory committee.

The county purchased the land for the Riverbend Park in 2015, but former Board of Commissioners chairman Mike Babb told the committee members that county commissioners had been promising residents of the south end of the county a park for considerably longer.

"You'd probably have to go back 30 years when we started talking about the future, and the future was supposed to be three major parks around Whitfield County, on the north end of the county, in the west side and on the south end of the county," he told committee members.

The Board of Commissioners created the 16-member citizens advisory committee in June 2019 to help the commissioners and other local government officials choose projects for the 2020 SPLOST referendum.

Jensen said work has been proceeding well at the site of the park.

"All of the excavation and major dirt moving is complete," he said. "I hope everything will be finished by the end of the year."