A groundbreaking ceremony was held Friday on R.A. Johnson Drive to celebrate a new phase in the construction of the Columbia SportsPlex, which is projected to be fully completed by Feb. 27, 2023, just in time for the start of youth baseball and softball in April.
The design for the soon-to-come sportsplex, which features six fields accommodating baseball, softball and soccer, was created by Dungan Engineering P.A. of Columbia. The rough grading and drainage phase of the project was completed by Beacon Construction LLC of Columbia, which won the bid for the work at approximately $1.1 million. Now, the city is moving forward with the build-out phase, for which Codaray Construction of Hattiesburg won the bid at $7 million. Mayor Justin McKenzie spoke at Friday's ceremony of his immense gratitude for the many contributors that have helped bring the vision for the new facility to life.
"I didn't make this happen, the Board of Aldermen didn't make this happen and Dungan Engineering didn't make this happen — alone," McKenzie said. "A bunch of people working together were able to start with an idea of (building) a sports complex where all of our kids could come together equally and play at a state-of-the-art facility. We came up with the slogan, 'Moving Columbia forward,' and that's exactly what I believe we're doing today through the investments downtown and the investments here on R.A. Johnson Drive."
McKenzie also noted that the site for the new sportsplex was especially fitting, paying homage to one of the earliest visionaries of this new endeavor.
"This street is named after Robert Johnson, who was a former alderman of Columbia," McKenzie explained. "When the grounds were originally leveled by TL Wallace Construction many years ago, they say that Mr. Robert would come out here and walk around picking up sticks and throwing them out of the way because he had a vision that someday there would be ball fields here for all the kids to come and play on."
Columbia Programs Administrator Rev. Larry Jenkins shared his hopes to see the new sportsplex carry on and enhance the rich tradition of baseball in Columbia that once began at Duckworth Park.
"I've lived long enough to understand that the only thing constant is change," Jenkins said. "I've also learned that if we are not open to change, we get left behind. I've been at Duckworth for some 35 years, and I don't see this as an end to Duckworth, rather an affordable opportunity for all of our children in Columbia and Marion County to play at a state-of-the-art facility and have something to be proud of."
Similar sentiments were shared by Brandi Stogner, who spoke on behalf of everyone who has helped fill Dean Griner with special memories for generations of youth in Marion County.
"It's no secret that athletes are formed here in Columbia. We've produced many great athletes who have gone on to higher levels, and they got their start right here on our tee-ball fields," Stogner said. "That goes back to having volunteers who were willing to invest in our children. So thank you to the citizens of Columbia for choosing to invest in our youth. They truly do deserve this. They deserve a nice place to play, and they deserve the chance to make memories like we all did growing up playing the game."