The Ocean Springs Sports Complex has needed more parking since it opened in 2012, according to city residents.
When Dennis Shoemaker schedules a tournament, it revolves around parking.
“I do it thinking about how to get people in and out quicker,” he said. “It’s a great complex, everybody loves it ... but the parking.”
The city opened the complex with four soccer fields, nine baseball and softball fields and two football fields.
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It has 333 parking spaces, including 10 on gravel by the shop and 30 on gravel outside the gate.
Two weeks ago, Shoemaker’s Great Southern Sports Association out of Lucedale had just 17 teams using the back five fields and parking was full, he said. Averaging 50 people per team (850 people), it maxed out the designated parking.
What happens then is people begin parking on the shoulder of the long access road into the Sports Complex from Mississippi 57.
You’d be amazed at how they park out there. They create parking spaces.
“You’d be amazed at how they park out there,” one observer said. “They create parking spaces.”
“We’ll have a big show in April,” Shoemaker said, “(when) we’ll pack it out with 50 teams. You’ll see ’em parked outside on (Mississippi) 57 that week. On a major highway.
“I have pictures from one of our big tournaments in 2016. We had people parking lined up all out on 57.”
A big issue is these are leagues of children and teens, so whole families and extended families want to come watch them play.
“Lots of older folks,” he said. “That’s what always gets you. Older folks have a hard time walking in.”
Built in a limited space
The complex sits in the middle of 120 acres, most of which can’t be used because it’s wet pine savannah.
By mitigating and negotiating, the city carved out 40 acres for the park and deeded the other 80 acres to the Land Trust for the Mississippi Coastal Plain to conserve.
“We put all our money into the fields and building the complex,” Mayor Connie Moran said. There are concessions with restrooms, showers, a large catering area and a screened-in grilling area.
“At the time, we knew we would need added parking for tournaments and as the complex became more popular,” she said. “We would address it in the future, and we are.”
The city has been working for 1 1/2 years on the complicated process of getting permits to use a little more land around the complex. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is at the end of the public-comment period.
The city is proposing an emergency-access road to allow vehicles a route to the back ball fields. Along that road, they will wedge in 65 parking spaces running perpendicular to the road on both sides. They will buy wetlands mitigation and request an easement from the Land Trust. Seven state and federal agencies will have to sign off on the proposal.
But is 65 enough? Some estimate the city needs to add 400 or more.
A long walk for grandma
This year, the city refinanced the $10 million bond issue to build the sports and public services complexes and will save $660,000, Moran said.
She thinks that money should go toward building the emergency road with parking and then starting another project — to add parking on either side of the long access road into the complex.
If the city installs drainage pipe on both sides and fills in the ditches, it can install parking spaces there.
But still, it’s a long walk for grandparents.
Shoemaker and Geri Straight, the city’s director of Parks and Leisure Services, both get calls from elderly people who say they can’t attend a grandson’s game because of the walk.
Lots of older folks. That’s what always gets you. Older folks have a hard time walking in.
Dennis Shoemaker, owner of GSSA
Straight said the city is considering putting benches along the way so people can stop and rest.
There are two golf carts, but that adds the issue of extra staffing and having motorized transport on the same sidewalks as pedestrians.
The city has tried “festival parking,” where ball families park at Ocean Springs High School and are bused in, but that’s not being used currently.
Straight juggles fields based on parking.
“If you’re over there on the soccer fields when we’re running a baseball tournament, I don’t even want to be there,” Shoemaker said. “You don’t even want to try that. I don’t see that being possible.”
The city has a multi-purpose complex, he said, but there’s no way you can run different types of events.
A big undeveloped area
Stepping back and looking at the area overall, Moran said, Ocean Springs east and the Gautier flats that run almost to City Hall in Gautier are among the last undeveloped large areas along U.S. 90 on the Coast.
The problem: There are seven watersheds that run through that area. Moran said the area needs a massive permit plan so the cities can carve out raised areas to develop without interfering with drainage and habitat, and put the other land into mitigation.
It would make development smoother and make it easier to add to projects such as the Sports Complex.
It could be an economic engine for the city ... if we could get the parking out there.
Alderman-at-large Bobby Cox
A solution would be great, sooner better than later, Ben Wilder has told the city Board of Aldermen in consecutive meetings.
Wilder is president of the Coast Soccer Club, which is growing by leaps and bounds and wants more time on the soccer fields at the complex.
He has brought numbers to the board trying to keep soccer from being bumped off fields by baseball and football events.
He said the city has enrolled more than 600 in soccer this year, 400 in baseball and 175 in football.
Alderman-at-large Bobby Cox said the fields at the sports complex are “second to none, beautiful, but right now we’re handicapped and can play only one sport at a time. We just need access.”
The Sports Complex could be an economic engine for the city, he said, “if we could get the parking out there so the tournaments can come in.”