A dream 24 years in the making is finally coming true.
Gainesville officials broke ground Thursday, June 9, on the J. Melvin Cooper Youth Sports Complex, also dubbed “The Coop,” which will have five ballfields and a multi-purpose rectangular field.
The city has long been in need of more ball fields and practice spaces for youth sports, dating back to 1998, city officials said at the ceremony.
The 89-acre complex at 2490 Old Cornelia Highway next to White Sulphur Elementary School is named for J. Melvin Cooper, who worked in the city’s parks and recreation department for 47 years and retired from his post as director of the department in 2019.
“It was very humbling,” Cooper said of the ceremony. “A vision that sometimes I wondered if it was really going to happen.”
Plans include five ball fields, a multi-purpose rectangular field, two concession stands, three fan seating areas, a 0.8-mile trail around the fields and 276 parking spaces.
The city has set aside $13 million in Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax funds for the project. SPLOST is a one-penny sales tax, and voters approved money for The Coop in 2015 and 2019.
The first 12 months of construction will mostly involve moving dirt, Gainesville Parks and Recreation Director Kate Mattison said, and they will construct the fields and other facilities in phase two.
The city doesn’t have a price set for phase two yet, but Mattison has said that the entire project could be between $17 million and $20 million. City Manager Bryan Lackey said some impact fee funds could be used for that phase of the project.
The city hopes to open The Coop in about two years, with construction starting in July, Mattison said.
Cooper Embry, former chair of the Gainesville Parks and Recreation board, said discussions with Cooper about building more fields started in 1998.
“We’re going to have several fields that we need desperately,” Embry said. “We’re going to have rectangular fields that we’ve never had before, because if you guys have had kids playing, you would practice in the outfields of baseball fields (for sports like soccer and lacrosse).”
It was a struggle to find the right property within the city limits.
The complex was originally planned off of Allen Creek Road near Allen Creek Soccer Complex, but initial drilling hit solid rock at the 190-acre site in 2017 on land the city already owned.
“Nobody is more iconic to this community than Melvin Cooper,” Mayor Sam Couvillon said. “Cooper’s 47 years of commitment to our community has made it great. (Cooper) pushed our park and rec department where not only were we surviving and thriving here locally, if you go look at the history, we are recognized nationally … and that is on the shoulders of Melvin Cooper.”
Cooper worked as parks director from 1989 to 2019, and the only jobs he ever had after college were within the department. During his tenure, the city opened the Frances Meadows Aquatic Center, hosted the 1996 Summer Olympics, renovated the Gainesville Civic Center and opened several other facilities.
“I’m thankful for all the people that stuck with us through the years for raising the money and getting the word out that we needed this complex for the youth of our community,” Cooper said. “And the economic impact that it brings to our community is really huge.”