Mike Ingram coached a competitive traveling women's softball team in Augusta for 16 years.
It was a traveling team because it had to be. There was nowhere in Richmond County for them to compete. A softball field complex suitable for tournaments and competitive events didn't exist.
"We even went to Spokane," Mr. Ingram said.
In 1992, the Johnson and Associates Decorators won the ladies' amateur national championship.
Six years later, Augusta still doesn't have the facilities to host competitive ball tournaments of any size. But that's about to change.
In June, construction will begin on the $6.8 million South Augusta Regional Park off Windsor Springs Road. The park is only one of the big-ticket projects in the city's $27.2 million worth of new or improved recreation facilities to be built with special-purpose sales tax money through the year 2000.
The park will have two five-field baseball/softball complexes with scoring towers and other amenities.
And that's way past due, said Mr. Ingram, the manager of Johannsen's Sporting Goods on Reynolds Street.
"Right now, we're literally 10 to 15 years behind the rest of the Southeast as far as developing first-class softball tournament complex," Mr. Ingram said. "Columbia's got them. Lexington's got them. Atlanta; Florence, South Carolina; Rock Hill, South Carolina - not to mention Columbia County's Patriots Park and Aiken's Citizens Park.
"These other communities have been bringing in these regional and national tournaments for years, and it's a tremendous economic boon to the community, just as the Futurity coming into to town or the Masters - on a smaller degree, of course."
And rather than being a one-week or two-week event, the tournaments go on almost all year round - from the end of February until after Thanksgiving.
"I mean you're talking about millions of dollars that just keep flowing in and being recycled through the community," Mr. Ingram said. "Gas, motel rooms, food, everything. I think it will help all the economy, not just recreation."
Mr. Ingram is equally enthusiastic about the $4.2 million Augusta Aquatics Center on Damascus Road that can host competitive swimming events in a 50-meter swimming pool, replete with diving well and lower- and upper-level spectator seating for 1,100.
Improvement to the city's parks and playgrounds are also long overdue, Mr. Ingram said.
"I hear they're going to do some beautiful work up at Lake Olmstead," he said.
The first $686,000 phase of the $2 million worth of Lake Olmstead park improvements includes work from the entrance on Broad Street to the boat ramp. Some $51,000 will go for new lighting.
"Due to the political climate, recreation has not been a priority until this latest round of sales tax," Mr. Ingram said. "All this should have been done years and years ago. We have really gotten bypassed by other communities in our area."
None of the money collected during the first two four-year phases of the special-purpose sales tax program that began in 1988 went to recreation. The $186.2 million collected before the third phase went into effect in 1996 went to roads, bridges and jail construction.
Mr. Ingram is out of the coaching business now. His team grew up and settled down. But his heart is still in sports, recreation and the youth of Augusta.
"I'm a big believer in the youth," he said. "They're everything. If we don't make things available to them, they're either going to go somewhere else to find what's available, or they're going to end up in trouble and all the problems that causes.
"That's why we have to build new jails and hire new deputies because we haven't kept these kids out of trouble. We ought to be out there setting the pace instead of bringing up the rear."
At Warren Road Community Center last week, Rebecca Smith, 2, was bringing up the rear and not at all concerned about it.
She and her mother, Lynn Smith, and 5-year-old sister, Taylor, were reaping the benefits of long overdue park improvements. That day the children were riding their tricycles around the walking track.
"Sometimes they skate, and sometimes we hit tennis balls, and sometimes we picnic," said Mrs. Smith. "We've made a tour of the parks, and this is their favorite."
Taylor said she liked to roller skate best of all.
"I like to roller skate too," Rebecca chimed in, catching up. "If somebody holds my hand, I can skate by myself."
The lighted walking track is part of the $378,000 worth of improvements that also include new playground equipment, picnic shelter, resurfaced tennis courts, new lights on tennis and basketball courts and parking improvements.
The city's recreation director, Tom Beck, said the park system has been "lagging behind for many years.
"The implementation of the 1-cent sales-tax program will bring us up to par with communities our size, and hopefully, go beyond that and put our parks in the upper echelon of park systems in the Southeast," he said.
The objectives of the program are two-fold: to enhance the quality of life for Augustans and attract visitors to the regional park and the aquatics center to boost the local economy, Mr. Beck said.
Two years into Phase III of the sales tax program, about 20 percent of the work has been done, 50 percent is underway and the remainder will be done shortly after 2000.
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