A major expansion for the City of Huntsville’s athletic facilities is in the early stages and designed to entertain and boost the local economy.
Nine new multi-purpose fields are planned for the property between Drake Avenue and Milton Frank Stadium, where the soon-to-close Huntsville Center for Technology now stands. The new complex will be connected via greenway, tying Brahan Spring Park to the adjacent Merrimack Park Soccer Complex.
With the synthetic surface at Milton Frank Stadium and eight full-size fields at Merrimack, it gives Huntsville potential to bid for even larger, more lucrative events.
“It’s going to be a huge benefit to have those additional fields,” says Ralph Stone, executive director of the Huntsville Sports Commission. “There is a standard for major competitions to have 14 to 16 fields at one location. The new addition, with the connectivity to Merrimack, makes it all one location and that’s a huge factor in people determining where they want to go with their tournaments. We’ll be able to compete with a lot of other cities by having those additional fields.”
According to Stone, a youth- or teenaged-level soccer tournament involving 40-plus teams brings an economic impact to the city of more than $1 million over the course of a three-day event. The city could ostensibly host six to eight such events a year.
The expansion has a two-fold purpose. It’s not merely to lure out-of-town teams for events, but it’s also to serve local players.
“Soccer is growing so fast in Huntsville. There’s a boom right now,” says Steve Ivey, director of Parks & Recreation for the City of Huntsville. “There are teams at all levels, kids through adults, and they’re all wanting to have lit fields. We’re just playing catch-up by adding these fields.”
The $10 million project has been approved by the City Council and the contract has been awarded to Chapman Sisson Architects. The group has subcontracted with Birmingham’s Holcombe Norton Partners to build the fields. As Ivey told the Council, “They literally wrote the book on how to build a soccer field.”
There has been “more emphasis on field quality” in developing these plans, according to Ivey, and some members of the local soccer community were invited to share ideas during the planning stages.
Chris O’Neil, Facilities Project Manager for the City of Huntsville, said the complex will have restrooms and a concession building and the potential for some small pavilions, as well as on-site parking.
The greenway will be lighted and will necessitate the building of a bridge over Merrimack Branch, perhaps utilizing the framework of an old railroad trestle that still stands there, according to O’Neil. The greenway serves not only as a connector between Merrimack and the new complex, but also to Milton Frank Stadium and its vast parking lot.
O’Neil says the preliminary master plan should be ready for review in April, with any revisions to be made and discussed in May and a final plan settled in June. After a bid process, he hopes for construction to begin sometime in the fall, with an estimated nine-month timeframe for the project’s completion.
Plans could include several fields with artificial turf. Though a greater up-front cost, they have long-term benefits. Grass fields obviously require personnel for maintenance and they can’t withstand constant play without some bit of relief. Currently, the Merrimack complex must close for two months in the summer simply to allow for repairs and recovery, according to Ivey.
Dominating much of the property now is the Huntsville Center for Technology, which had housed various vocational programs offered by Huntsville City Schools. The Center, which was opened in 1968, will be razed to make room for the project.
The odd geometry of the parcel of land will test the designers. It has a narrow base at the Drake Road location, extending from the right side almost due north to Ivy Ave., just below Milton Frank Stadium. From the left side of the base, it stretches northwest, with a property line nearly twice the length as on the right, running parallel with Merrimack Branch. The Senior Center flanks the right side, the Chasewood neighborhood to the left.
“We’re blessed with nice facilities in Huntsville, but we’ve been at a deficit in multi-purpose fields,” Stone says. “And we need to think of these as multi-purpose. We have to start thinking broader. There are a lot of lacrosse tournaments we could host, Ultimate Frisbee, even big-time archery tournaments that need a lot of wide-open space. The boundaries are unlimited with what we can do.”