Connecting a community
A vision more than a dozen years in the making became a reality in 2012 when the Columbus Soccer Complex opened near downtown Columbus.
For soccer enthusiasts, it is a treasure, with nine lighted soccer fields (which can be parceled into two dozen smaller fields), a football field, walking trails and two restrooms and concession stands. But for civic leaders and Columbus residents, it’s much more than an athletic facility. It’s a multi-use recreational amenity situated within a virtual nature conservatory. A gateway to downtown, it’s another link in a growing chain of quality-of-life improvements and the answer to how best to transform what was considered by many a blighted area into a park an entire community and state will use and enjoy.
The complex ties into the existing Farmer’s Market and is walking distance to shops and restaurants in downtown Columbus. The park has since been connected via a walking trail to the Columbus Riverwalk, a 2.2-mile multi-use path on the Tennessee-Tombigbee River, and to the recently refurbished Old Tombigbee River Bridge, now a pedestrian walkway and special events pavilion. “This is like Central Park is to New York,” said Harry Sanders, president of the Lowndes County Board of Supervisors. “It’s going to be there forever, walking distance to downtown.”
The soccer complex was built on 40 acres of a 72-acre parcel. Neel-Schaffer enlisted renowned landscape architect Edward Blake Jr., ASLA, to design a facility that was functional yet aesthetically pleasing while exacting a minimum amount of change to the natural beauty of the area.
Less than 6 percent of 8.5 acres of wetlands were impacted, and the designers went to great lengths to preserve a creek that runs through the park, along with several majestic cypress trees believed to be at least 100 years old. Additionally, some 700 new trees and shrubs were planted, and great care was taken in developing a master plan that when fully built out will include enough fields and parking to nearly double current capacity, while keeping the same motif and natural design.
Sidewalks connecting the fields within the park form more than a mile of walking paths that are used by citizens daily for exercise. Among the many unique and innovative features of the complex is the neighborhood-style, on-street parking on the treelined streets that wind through the facility. Instead of building one large parking lot, designers opted for parking that mimics a “downtown motif” while providing closer access for users of the various fields spread throughout the park.
Neel-Schaffer engineers oversaw the $4.23 million project from inception to completion, uniting community members while melding support from the Columbus-Lowndes Recreation Authority (CLRA), the City of Columbus and the Lowndes County Board of Supervisors.
Neel-Schaffer conducted the initial feasibility study, helped with land acquisition and permitting, and performed design and construction management. When tragedy struck — two team members died during the design phase — Neel-Schaffer, led by Kevin Stafford, PE, made sure the project stayed on course.
“Kevin was the captain,” said Roger Short, executive director of the CLRA. “He took this thing and ran with it and was down there on a daily basis and was very meticulous.
“He did a super job and I don’t think it would have been nearly as successful without Kevin Stafford and Neel-Schaffer.”
Tom Velek, a university professor who coaches in the Columbus youth soccer leagues, was an advocate for the Burns Bottom location. While traveling to tournaments around the Southeast, he had seen his share of “cookie cutter” complexes. Most were built on clear-cut land outside of cities, away from shops and restaurants, and had a common theme: One big parking lot adjacent to multiple fields placed side-by-side.
“This,” says Velek of the Columbus Soccer Complex, “is a different beast. The fact that it’s where it is, and the way it’s laid out, makes it an integral part of the community.”
The facility was quickly recognized as one of the best in Mississippi. It hosted a statewide Mississippi Soccer Association event with 32 teams in October of 2013 and then hosted the largest statewide MSA event in May of 2014, with more than 100 teams playing more than 200 games over a three-day period.
If the tournament was a critical test for the new complex, consider that test passed.
“I would say absolutely brilliant,” Dr. Terry Eguaoje, an MSA official, told the Columbus Commercial Dispatch when asked about the complex after the tournament. “From the soccer fields to the restrooms, it is amazing.”
The complex has been everything Columbus officials had hoped it would be – if not more.
For Neel-Schaffer, it was a chance to do what we do best, to serve one of the communities in which we live, work and play. From the beginning, it was our goal to facilitate an accord on the location and design that would be best for Columbus and its residents. Our engineers kept the project on track and on budget and along the way we helped create one of the most unique athletic facilities in the state of Mississippi, in a beautiful park that has helped connect the community’s recreational amenities while creating a better quality of life for our citizens.