Originally created 05/17/99

Park nears completion of Phase 1

Six months ago, the area now known as Diamond Lakes Regional Park was just 200 acres of woodland off Windsor Spring Road.

Undisturbed for 30 years, the land surrounding the old Augusta International Speedway had returned to the wild. Thick brush had replaced the fallen grandstands, and pines towered over what was the pit row.

Only the cracked and broken asphalt of the 3-mile track remained from a time when legends of early stock car racing thrilled weekend crowds.

Soon crowds may return.

Construction is on schedule for a Sept. 1 opening day for Augusta's newest multipurpose recreational park, said city Recreation and Parks Director Tom Beck.

With the first phase of the $6.2 million project nearing completion, Mr. Beck can envision when the gates open and the first ball is thrown.

"We have plans for playing out here this fall," Mr. Beck said.

The recreation department hired a manager to run the new park. Randy S. Haygood, a Georgia native whose last position was assistant recreation director for Oconee County, starts June 1, Mr. Beck said.

With trees cleared and earth molded into shape, crews are busy building two three-story towers, each to be ringed with an array of playing fields -- five for softball and five for youth baseball.

The towers were designed as modern facilities, decked in features and amenities that will attract large tournaments for years, Mr. Beck said.

"They're not like any we've ever seen through all of our travels to other parks," he said.

The ground floor of each tower will house restrooms, concession stands, dressing rooms and space for merchandise sales.

The second floor will be an observation deck capable of accommodating up to 200 people.

"Grandparents and people who can't stand the sun can get on the observation deck and watch the games," Mr. Beck said.

The towers' third floors will have administrative offices and scoring booths.

Paid for through Augusta's penny sales tax, the first phase is only the beginning for Diamond Lakes.

Plans -- which could cost an additional $6 million -- call for a tennis center, a multiuse gymnasium, soccer and football fields, and fishing on the land's 40 acres of lakes.

The old race track will be converted to a paved jogging and bike trail, Mr. Beck said.

The idea is to concentrate recreational facilities in one area, which enhances use and conserves resources, Mr. Beck said.

Building multiuse recreational parks is a national trend, said Tammy Stout, director of the Greater Augusta Sports Council, a nonprofit group devoted to promoting sports and recreation in the Augusta area.

Similar parks have been built in Macon and Columbus, Ga., but Diamond Lakes is about as good as it gets, Ms. Stout said.

Such a facility will give Augusta an edge in competing against other communities to hold national sporting events and will enhance the local quality of life.

"I think the addition of this facility enhances the entire area," said Ms. Stout.

Augusta officials were wise to create something that can serve the community and spur economic development, she said.

"It's exciting to see them realize that we need to build a facility with a competitive edge and not just build something for the community like a small community center and then try to stretch it," she said. "A lot of the community leaders have realized we have to be competitive on the state level."

The Greater Augusta Sports Council is planning to be host to a seniors invitational softball tournament at Diamond Lakes in fall 2000.

"We've decided we have the capabilities, facilities and expertise locally to support such an event," Ms. Stout said.

Though officials emphasize the park is meant to serve all Richmond County, south Augusta is expected to see the biggest effect from its use.

"We know it is going to impact that area greatly," said Sandra K. Mercer, president of Augusta Pride and Progress, a subcommittee of the Metro Augusta Chamber of Commerce.

The park is expected to bring more visitors to south Augusta, which will create a demand for more services. That will spur development of restaurants, hotels and shopping, Ms. Mercer said.

"Putting something out there in that area is really going to set the pace for other things to happen," she said.

New growth in Richmond County appears to be headed south. Growth predictions have prompted school officials to build a high school a few miles from Diamond Lakes.

"That's where all our remaining land is," Ms. Mercer said. "That's the only place we have left."

Before much more growth can occur, new infrastructure -- such as more sewers and better roads -- needs to be in place, she said.

The entrance to Diamond Lakes is off a two-lane section of Windsor Spring Road south of Tobacco Road, already known to be choked with traffic during peak periods. The park will add traffic to that area, officials say

Plans are in the works to widen another section of Windsor Spring Road, said Jack Murphy, Augusta's public works director. However, the first bulldozer won't start on that project for at least another three years, he said.

S.B. Crawford can be reached at (706) 823-3217 or scraw@augusta



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