Jackson County Times

Top Story News

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

44 Years of Meaningful Public Service The Marianna Optimist Club…a club with a work ethic.

By Sid Riley
This article is being written as a tribute to a group of Jackson County men who have worked long and hard to fulfill the mission of their organization, and in the process have tremendously helped five generations of youth in our area. “Pledge, Eat, Burp, and Leave,” is a phrase which has been a previously used description of many civic organizations. That in no way describes the Marianna Optimist Club.

The Optimist Club charter states that all funds generated by club activities will be spent on projects which directly are to the benefit of youth in the club’s community. That then specifies the mission of the organization, a mission which our local Optimist membership has fulfilled since their inception in 1966. Four charter members are still active in the club, Bob Pforte (the first club President), Earl Williams, Ken Stoutamire, and Leland James.

From the very beginning the organization jumped into a meaningful project which greatly benefited the youth of Marianna and nearby areas….It was the old baseball field behind the High School. A previous group of civic minded sportsmen had formed a club which had collectively signed a note to install lighting for this field, which was then one of only two ball fields available for Marianna’s children to use. When the Optimist came along, the sports club was going bankrupt, and was unable to meet the demands of the note.

The newly formed Optimist Club seized this situation as their first call to service. They assumed the note and began actively raising money through a variety of projects, including selling Christmas trees, raffles, and other fund raising activities. They paid off the note within a couple of years.

For years the old Jennings Park baseball field on the South edge of town had been nothing but a sand lot field, with no real facilities except for a tattered old backstop. The property belonged to Jo Ann Hunt and her sister. They had inherited the property from their uncle, who had stipulated in his will that the property was to always be called “Jennings Field”, which was his family name. He had been a civic minded gentleman who had always made the land available for use by the community for playing baseball for many years.

The Optimist Club took Jennings Field as their next major club project. They purchased the property from the sisters by collectively signing a note at Citizens Bank for $8500. Again, the club members embarked on fund raising programs, including operating a small concession at the field. Those who remember this concession might recall a favorite item sold there….mustard covered popcorn. It doesn’t sound appealing, but reportedly is delicious. After a few years the note at Citizens was paid in full by the club.

Next, the City of Marianna was able to obtain a State grant for $30,000 for the purchase of the park. They wrote the check, payable to the Marianna Optimist Club. The club then immediately donated the $30,000 back to the City, to be used for improvements at the field. What a great example of a club performing civic service! Shortly thereafter the Club was essentially given the vacant lot on the hill above Jennings Field, which belonged to Dr. Arnold Lambe. The Optimist Club then also donated that land to the City to be made into a parking area for the field. The club members then went to work clearing, grading, and preparing the area for eventual paving. Meanwhile they continued to sell the mustard coated popcorn and other concessions, Christmas trees at Christmas, and many other functions to realize the funds needed for these improvements.

Then one day in 1979 some of the City of Marianna commission members, including John Manor, J.D. Swearingen, and Bob Pforte requested that Optimist Club Officers, including Ken Stoutamire, and Tommy Grainger, meet them at the city dump, then located on airport property, near the football field on Caverns Road. The City wanted to see if the Club was interested in developing this area for a community baseball complex. After some negotiation, the Optimist managed to reach an agreement for the City to deed 231 acres in that area for a sports complex which they knew would meet the needs of the community for many, many years to come. Their next project, and biggest yet was thus launched. Kiwanis’s donated $5000, and Rotary $800 to help get the project underway.

Ken Stoutamire was designated as project chairman, with help from Andy Alsup, Tommy Grainger, Leland James, and Richard Swails. The first step was to develop a master plan. For this they turned to Julius Sullivan, who worked with the Soil Conservation Service. He and his co-worker Sylvia Clemmons developed a master plan and drawings. Sullivan had seen a complex of four fields around a central building design at a city in Georgia, and he used that as his guide in developing the plans here.

Then came the task of organizing the work, pulling as many strings as possible, begging for favors, and doing anything the club could do to make progress on the project at a minimum of cost. Gene Prough, who then was working at the Vo-Tech College in Chipley, arranged for the school’s heavy equipment course to be taught at the site. Their earth movers and other equipment worked at the field for almost four years, as students learned through the hands on experience the project provided. This equipment consumed some $67,000 in diesel fuel, and it only cost sixty cents per gallon back then. The Optimist Club paid for all of the fuel.

Finally some grant money began to be realized. A $350,000 grant was awarded to the City. This was primarily used for all of the fencing around the entire property, the central building facility which houses the control center, administrative offices, the concession area, and the rest rooms. The complex contains over 2.5 miles of electrical conduit, including telephones in every dugout, and scoreboards on every field. Another $500,000 grant was awarded through assistance from the School Board by obtaining PECO education funding, along with $185,000 from another grant. These monies were spent on finishing the project, including the large equipment barn, the batting cages, a nature trail, and other items.

Finally, in April of 1988 the sports complex was ready for dedication, and Governor Martinez, himself an Optimist, came to do the honors. The park was officially dedicated as “Optimist Park”. The fields were operational, and the enhanced sports programs for Marianna and surrounding areas were begun. The Optimist Club was given the franchise to operate the concessions, and to sell promotional advertising signs at the entrances. It is important to remember that all of the funds realized from these activities was to be used in support of youth activities, including uniforms, equipment, and even bussing to state tournaments in Lakeland, (in those years when we won the regional tournaments).

Shortly thereafter a Young Adults Conservation Corps grant for $185,000 was awarded. This was designated for landscaping, construction of five practice fields and other improvements. Then the Optimist found that they could get the antique steam engine for the park free of charge from Dr. Folds, who had the train in central Florida. The 144th Transportation Squadron volunteered to move the train to Marianna. The flat car and the box car were donated by the Atlantic Coast Line, and the Caboose was sitting as an unwanted occupier at Gulf Coast College. They sold the caboose to the project for $1.00.

Later, the club spent another $12,000 of their concessions generated funds for a canopy and dining fixtures in front of the concession area. A small scale train and track were acquired and restored by Tommy Grainger as an addition to the park.

Since it was built, the MERE complex has provided rich sports experiences and memories for thousands of area children, parents, and supporters. The sports center has also created significant positive economic impact for Marianna, and the hospitality businesses in the area.

This was a tremendous undertaking for a small civic club. It required many years of hard work and dedicated volunteerism from the participants to accomplish what was done. We owe them all a tremendous level of gratitude.

Recently the City Commission altered the concession arrangement with the city in the latest contract. As a result, the Optimist Club decided to discontinue their operation of the concession stand at the park. A private concessionaire was ultimately given the concession agreement, so the Optimist Club involvement at MERE, or Optimist Park as they wish to call it, has come to an end. They will continue to raise funds through the sale of the promotional advertising signs at the field. These funds will be used in continuing support of youth activities.

The Optimist Club also sponsors many other community programs, including: a soccer program, youth essay contest, tri-star basketball, a science fair, oratorical contests, seven scholarships to Chipola, tri-star baseball, boy scouts, girl scouts, cub scouts, partnership in education, and blue springs project support. The presence of this civic club in our community has definitely enriched the childhood experiences of many of our citizens and their children.

Soon the Optimist Club will be involved in another beneficial project for our youngsters….I’m optimistic about it.

No comments:

Post a Comment