With $27.4 million secured for improvements to the Cooper Park and Sports Complex, the Springfield City Council is considering allocating an additional $905,502 to close the funding gap on the $30 million project. (Photo by Lake Country Soccer)

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Instead of smelling fresh-cut grass, athletes in Springfield will enjoy the distinct smell of small rubber pellets when they take to the fields at the Cooper Sports Complex.

All told, more than $20 million in funding through the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) will be spent to turn 19 grass fields into artificial turf fields. The Springfield City Council held the first reading of a bill to obligate $7.3 million toward revamping Cooper Park and Sports Complex, and will consider the $40 million ARPA bill with 16 different projects for a final vote on July 25.

What is ARPA?

ARPA is a $1.9 trillion federal aid package the U.S. Congress enacted in March 2021 to provide financial aid to families, governments, businesses, schools, nonprofits and others impacted by the economic recesses of the COVID-19 pandemic. Of that $1.9 trillion, $350 billion is going to state and local governments as part of the Fiscal Recovery Fund.

In May, the Missouri General Assembly approved a bill with $13.5 million in federal funding for renovations at the Cooper Sports Complex, and Gov. Mike Parson signed the bill into law.

Springfield-Greene County Parks Director Bob Belote said the combined allocations from the state and Springfield governments will change Springfield’s amateur sports landscape for the better.

“Between that and the state funding, that will put us up to $20.8 million — incredible, almost $21 million to go towards our restoration of Cooper Park and our three activities that are in the park,” Belote said at a Springfield-Greene County Park Board meeting July 8. “Most of our complex is dating back 30-plus years there in the park.”

The Cooper Park and Sports Complex has a total of 127 acres of land between East Chestnut Expressway and East Division Street in northeastern Springfield. Eight of the 14 soccer fields will be resurfaced with artificial turf, as will the six softball fields at Killian Softball Complex and five youth baseball fields at the Cooper Sports Complex. Part of the plan includes the development of one of those baseball fields into a “stadium complex” for bigger games.

(Source: Google Maps)

The ARPA funding from the state will funnel through the Missouri Department of Economic Development, and requires a local match on the part of organizations that include the Springfield-Greene County Park Board. The Park Board is working with its main partners at Cooper Park, like Lake Country Soccer and the different colleges that use the fields for their athletic teams.

In the future, Belote recommended the Springfield-Greene County Park Board greenlight funding and resources for a Cooper Park master plan that will be used as a continuous guide for growth and development of the park in the decades to come.

“That also puts the impetus on us to study the whole park,” Belote said. “Now that we’ve got three complexes we’re looking at, we really also need to look at Cooper Park in general with shared parking opportunities, traffic flow, how the park works from a neighborhood park perspective and use of green space. Every square inch out there is pretty valuable.”

Soccer and tourism officials want turf

John Markey, the director of Lake Country Soccer, explained that the nonprofit soccer association is partnered with the Park Board for use of the fields and the development of some of the facilities, but does not own any of the land.

Markey spoke to the Springfield City Council in support of the ARPA-funded turf proposal on July 11. Over eight years, Markey said Lake Country Soccer has put about half a million dollars into field maintenance, adding lights to some fields and building a press box.

John Markey. (Source: City of Springfield)

“I’ve been involved in other complexes, this is one of the best collaborations between parks and an organization that I’ve ever been a part of,” Markey said. “The full master plan and what the corridor is going to look like is going to move us into the next century.”

Markey said people from the larger Missouri soccer committee have pledged to host tournaments and events in Springfield if the fields are improved, and that Springfield has a good reputation as a soccer community.

“I’ve already got people waiting to bring projects in here that are going to bring additional economic impact and revenue to the city,” Markey said. “They’re dying for Springfield to do it, not because we’re the biggest city, because we are the friendliest city, and I get that constantly.”

Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau President Tracy Kimberlin said the CVB is bidding for Springfield to host more sporting events in an effort to bolster the tourism economy. Springfield City Council entered a contract to spend about $4.2 million with the Springfield Convention Visitors Bureau for marketing over the upcoming fiscal year, from July 1, 2022-June 30, 2023. The Springfield CVB is a 501(c)6 nonprofit with a staff of about 20 employees. Kimberlin spoke in favor of using ARPA funds for turf fields at Cooper.

“Sports tourism generates a tremendous amount of economic activity for our community and our city,” Kimberlin said.

Kimberlin said sports tourism is important for Springfield’s hotels, restaurants and other hospitality-based businesses to recover from the economic downturn of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Pre-pandemic in Greene County there were about 22,000 people who worked in the leisure and hospitality industry,” Kimberlin said. “When the pandemic hit, that dropped to about 12,000. We’re back up almost to where we were. These projects are going to help [hospitality job totals] get even higher than that.”

Tournaments = sales tax revenue

Springfield Area Sports Commission Director Lance Kettering and Belote, the parks director, both said that Springfield will play host to more soccer, baseball and softball tournaments if the fields at Cooper Park have turf.

“This puts us back in that ballgame to where we’re competitive for bringing in these types of events, and having that type of economic development and visitor spending that’s really important to the community,” Belote said.

Belote said there will also be benefits for kids and adults who play in local leagues, both in recreational and competitive sports.

“You get something that really benefits our local taxpayers and our resident sports families, but also has that layer to where we can attract and bring in other events that our own kids can play in — kind of stay home while they’re playing in a state tournament or what have you — but also brings a lot of folks to Springfield and puts it in a very positive light,” Belote said.

According to the Forward SGF master planning documents, Springfield parks generate $13 million to $15 million annually for the local economy. Facilities host more than 50 national, regional, state and local sports tournaments.

Parks and recreational opportunities were ranked highly by Springfield residents who participated in community outreach efforts to gather input, during which 45.2 percent of resident questionnaire respondents voted park and outdoor assets as Springfield’s greatest strength.

Children play Flag football
Children play flag football. (Photo by Dean Curtis)

Breakaway speed

By law, ARPA funds must be obligated by the end of 2024 and spent by the end of 2026. The next step for the development of Cooper Park will be for the Park Board to come back to the City Council with a design and engineering contract agreement that will also involve Lake Country Soccer.

Belote said the speedy nature of the ARPA law will make time precious for engineers and for contractors.

“That timeline is for everybody out there,” Belote said. “Everybody who’s got ARPA funding has got kind of a three-year window, which puts a real crunch on vendors, on designers, on engineering and consulting firms, along with builders.”

Since rumors about turf additions and Cooper were circulating before Congress enacted ARPA, Belote said contractors and turf installers are ready to work with Springfield.

“We have been approached by an awful lot of folks in the turf industry knowing this potentially could happen, and they’re really wanting to work with us on some things,” Belote said.

Some grass fields will remain after the turf project is done. Belote said that the money the Park Board saves in field maintenance from having turf should translate into better care for the remaining grass fields at Cooper Park.

“That reduces our maintenance and the things we have to do with grass fields, just all the battles we have with weather,” Belote said. “That reduces our maintenance while also adding to our revenue potential, because now we can have activities on top of activities because we have turf versus the wear and tear it puts on grass fields.”

Funding recommendations up for final approval on July 25:

$7.3 million for the Cooper/Killian sports complexes

$7 million for housing and homeless projects

$4 million to renovate Historic City Hall

$3 million for the Springfield Art Museum’s education wing

$3 million for the Ozark Greenways Chadwick Flyer Trail development

$2 million to the Boys and Girls Club/Foster Adopt Connect teen center

$1 million for Restore SGF housing renewal effort

$750,000 for Missouri State University for the Grand Street underpass

$750,000 for Ozarks Technical Community College airframe and powerplant training facility

$650,000 for the Family Connects Program

$500,000 for the Springfield-Greene County Library

$500,000 for Jordan Creek daylighting project

$500,000 for a housing study

$250,000 for the Ozark Empire Fair youth agricultural education center

$100,000 for the Burrell Behavioral Health 24/7 mental help hotline

$50,000 for the Discovery Center

Rance Burger

Rance Burger is the managing editor for the Daily Citizen. He previously covered local governments from February 2022 to April 2023. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia with 17 years experience in journalism. Reach him at rburger@hauxeda.com or by calling 417-837-3669. Twitter: @RanceBurger More by Rance Burger