MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

Local News

February 4, 2014

Council hears plan for Love-Hatbox

Detailed report expected in two weeks

Muskogee city councilors expect a report in two weeks that will set out a plan to implement recommendations for the multiphase development of Love-Hatbox Sports Complex.

Their directive came after parks officials shared the vision of a master plan, the culmination of a comprehensive study and two subsequent design projects. All three projects, which cost about $95,000 and took more than two years to complete, were geared toward turning the 300-plus acres on the city’s west side as a Mecca for tourism.

Ward III Councilor Randy Howard, who also serves as chairman of the parks board, also suggested the need to appoint an oversight board to deal with Love-Hatbox development. The board would replace the now defunct fair board that disbanded when officials began eyeing Love-Hatbox as the future fairgrounds.

“Love-Hatbox is a huge complex — from what I’ve seen it is mega-large — (and) there are so many things going on it is overwhelming,” Howard said about the development project. “It will be too big to have the parks department and parks board to control that and do everything you want.”

Howard’s comments came after Parks and Recreation Director Mark Wilkerson laid out an ambitious development plan for a partially developed area that retains its designation as an airport. The master plan includes provisions to improve and expand sporting venues and an aquatics park, add family entertainment center and outdoor festival amenities, and build a multipurpose event center and livestock barns at a cost of up to $50 million.

Wilkerson and the city’s elected leaders recognize no funding is in place for the bigger projects. But they pointed to things that can be done within the existing and future budgets they hope will boost tourism, like improvements to sporting venues.

Ward II Councilor Dan Hall, who led a task force subcommittee that examined ways to improve the facility’s athletic fields, said one goal is to make Love-Hatbox a tournament-level venue. Part of that might be accomplished at a relatively nominal cost in the near future, but a Tulsa-based design group estimated realizing that vision could cost nearly $2 million.

Wilkerson said weekend tournaments have the potential to attract a lot of people to town for overnight visits. That kind of draw in tourism, Wilkerson said, might justify the investment, but the mayor expressed some skepticism.

“As an outsider looking in — we built it, they came, and then they left,” Mayor Bob Coburn said about the existing sports venues at Love-Hatbox. “How do you get that back?”

Wilkerson said he had no definite plan to address that concern but suggested there may be a need for a dedicated marketing and managing staff. Ward IV Councilor Kenny Payne said there needs to be more effort in maintaining and preparing the fields for athletic events and making sure that work is being done right.

“Let’s be honest, we can go scratch out some lines for a baseball game but nobody is going to come from Tulsa to do it,” Payne said. “If you want to get ... to where you are talking about, it’s going to take some things like that.”

Ward I Councilor Lee Ann Langston said there is a need to be more proactive about promoting Love-Hatbox.

Reach D.E. Smoot at (918) 684-2901 or dsmoot@muskogeephoenix.com.

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