Ever since Doctors Hospital five years ago spurned the advances of a site-selection committee looking for land for Columbia County's new courthouse, many county residents and officials have continued to flirt with the idea of buying their Evans field.
The property, across the street from the Justice Center at Ronald Reagan Drive and North Belair Road, is a mostly flat, slightly rolling parcel of nearly 20 acres. It's a developer's dream, sitting across the street from the Marshall Square property destined to become the professional and commercial heart of the Evans town center.
But county officials, now pursuing public ownership of the field, aren't doing so with the intention of putting more stores or offices on it. Instead, they say the best use for the land is keeping it pretty much the way it is.
We couldn't agree more. In fact, this newspaper has not only advocated public ownership of the property and its perpetual use as a park, but we've also been among its more vocal protectors when motorcyclists and assorted off-roaders threatened to turn the field into a mud pit.
The man who finally stepped in to stop those shenanigans was Shayne George, Doctors Hospital's chief operating officer, who posted a sign to run the bad elements off. George is now sending signals that the hospital, five years after giving the cold shoulder for the courthouse project, is willing to at least go to first base with the county.
County officials, recently returning from a retreat with a bundle of good ideas, are getting cozy with the prospects of turning what currently is a future hospital office site into a public park. "It's basically the center of the Evans town center, and it really should be preserved for the citizens,'' says County Commission Chairman Ron Cross.
What's the big deal about this property? Aren't there 20-acre and bigger pastures all over Columbia County? Sure there are; but none are located where this one is. More importantly, the public value of the Evans field has risen because of Doctors Hospital's remarkable generosity in allowing so many public events to be held there.
For the past four years, the county's Red, White and Blue Veterans Celebration has used the site, featuring the community's only Memorial Day weekend fireworks show. Hundreds of children have learned about fire safety at Fire Fest, and dozens of teens and young adults have learned lacrosse. Rec department football squads have scrimmaged on the field, and Family Y soccer players have pitched their games on the grass. And innumerable residents have shagged golf balls or flown kites or model airplanes on the field.
It would be nice if Doctors Hospital would continue to own the valuable property and pay taxes on it, letting everyone enjoy the company's hospitality free of charge. But that's not really fair to them. It's also not fair to the hospital to deprive it of its valuable investment through condemnation, so the best outcome is for the county to work a deal to pay an equitable price for the property, perhaps including a trade for land nearer the fast-growing Greenbrier area.
If this plan comes to fruition -- and we hope it will -- watchdogs in the community will need to make sure future commissioners don't attempt to cash in the valuable property for commercial development. But for now, the prospects of the Evans field becoming Columbia County's mega-version of the Augusta Common is a sweet deal.
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