For 50 years, Citizens Field has been just that—a place for Rams, Bobcats and Hurricanes to cheer and support their teams. The field has crushed dreams and fulfilled them for scores of athletes.
City Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut calls the stadium “our field of dreams,” and she believes a reenergized and expanded Citizens Field would serve as the stimulant for Eastside Gainesville’s economic growth. By incorporating the Martin Luther King Jr. Multipurpose Center and Dwight H. Hunter Pool, she hopes to create an Eastside sports and event center that will unite the east and west parts of town, while drawing events from around the Southeast.
“Everyone uses Citizens Field,” Chestnut said in an interview. “It’s where we have our games. People from the west buy into Citizens Field, people from the east, no matter where they are.”
And all three schools that call the field home know the stadium needs an upgrade, Chestnut said.
Chestnut joined the Gainesville City Commission in February 2022 after winning a special election for the at-large seat. But she’s familiar with the role, serving as the first Black woman on the commission in 1987.
Chestnut has made the project a signature issue since re-joining the commission last year. The plans call for redevelopment at the city’s NE 8th Avenue and Waldo Road intersection, where Citizens Field and the MLK Center sit. The idea had floated around for years, and Chestnut filed a motion on April 28 that directed staff to evaluate the scope of a multi-use complex.
In November, the commission hired C.H. Johnson Consulting, Inc. to perform a feasibility and pro forma study on Citizens Field, the MLK Center and the Dwight H. Hunter Pool.
However, Chestnut said the east side has been promised economic development by nearly every city politician, but little has materialized. Ongoing goals include attracting a grocery store and financial institution.
“To alleviate the fears, we have to turn the first shovel of dirt,” Chestnut said. “Once they see the first shovel of dirt turned, then they then I think people will see this is going to become a reality.”
Both Chestnut and other commissioners, who supported the motions, noted that the complex will involve more than just sports.
“We’re looking to double the size of the MLK Center with, as I mentioned, basketball and pickleball, but also a meeting space, so that churches that want to have a banquet can look to rent our space,” Chestnut said.
She added that the city can attract other events like antique shows.
But sports will form a cornerstone for the proposed complex. Sports tourism continues growing, and Chestnut said the city could capitalize by creating a space for tournaments.
Alachua County just entered the sports tourism space with the Alachua County Sports and Event Center at Celebration Pointe.
In January, officials celebrated at a naming ceremony for the indoor track. An opening ceremony will happen later this year, and officials announced the sportsplex is already booked for 2023 and into 2024.
The complex cost around $38 million to build, and the county estimates $77 million in annual overall economic impact.
Joleen Miller, executive director of the Gainesville Sports Commission, said a Gainesville-owned sports complex would further sports tourism in the area and complement the county facility.
The county sportsplex focuses on indoor athletics—track, volleyball and basketball. But the Eastside facility would focus on outdoors with the football field and proposed soccer fields and track. The city facility also has the Dwight H. Howard Pool and wooden basketball courts.
Miller said she already has a tough time scheduling volleyball and basketball tournaments with the MLK Center and Legacy Park in Alachua as the only locations for basketball.
She said the T.B. McPherson Park is always booked. The new Alachua County Sports and Events Center will work for some tournaments, Miller said, but the sport court flooring instead of wooden floors restricts which tournaments will come.
Central location and proximity to the state line helps draw in tournaments, Miller said, adding that Gainesville already has the reputation of a sports city thanks to the Gators.
“So, even if you’re not on campus, people are still drawn to Gainesville because they know it’s part of the university,” Miller said. “They can go and stop and take their kids. It’s just a sport town in general.”
Scott Peters works as director of track and field for RADD Sports, the management company hired to run Alachua County’s sportsplex. He said that the indoor track season only lasts from January to early March. The city facility could host outdoor track for the remainder of the year.
“If the facility being proposed goes forward, I think it’s just so much better,” Peters said. “We get all these things, football and soccer and more basketball and improve the swimming.”
He said Gainesville can look to host major tournaments to generate revenue, and local athletes can compete without worrying about travel costs.
Chestnut said she’s taken the project to state Sen. Keith Perry and Rep. Chuck Clemons, both of whom said they would advocate for state funds during the 2024 legislative session. Chestnut said she also wanted to pull U.S. Rep. Kat Cammack on board for federal funding opportunities.
One way to finance portions of the facility could be private sponsorship. Chestnut is actively seeking partnerships in the community.
Last month Mayor Harvey Ward mentioned bringing a city policy on sponsorships forward at an upcoming commission meeting. He said commissioners will need to pursue creative funding sources as Gainesville readjusts budgets to factor in the city’s debt, which has drawn scrutiny from state lawmakers.
“We need to move forward on some concepts we’ve had about sponsorships and having a policy for sponsorships because there are things that we might be able to have sponsored that we offer as a city that heretofore have been entirely paid for out of taxes,” Ward said at the city’s Feb. 27 special meeting.
Even as budgets tighten, Ward said the city will continue moving forward with projects coming from dedicated funding sources and partnerships, like Wild Spaces Public Places and the Eastside Urgent Care Center.
For the Eastside complex, Chestnut said the city could use Wild Spaces Public Places and Gainesville Community Reinvestment Area funds. The facility may also need to come along in stages, Chestnut said, adding that she doesn’t want the project to bog down and take three to five years.
Once finished, the facility can embody the dreams of Gainesville and the Eastside again.
“All of this is geared to helping the Eastside finally establish their place in the city as an economic engine,” Chestnut said.
Great Idea! Good luck on obtaining persons who would
ACT on your same visions and in getting FUNDING for the Project.