million Emerald Youth Sports Complex proposed for Chilhowee Park
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$20 million Emerald Youth Sports Complex proposed for Chilhowee Park

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What is the best potential use for the vacant land near Chilhowee Park to meet the needs of east Knoxville? In response to a call for ideas, the Emerald Youth Foundation proposed a $20 million youth sports and development complex, a plan that has garnered support but also some skepticism from community members.

In May, the City of Knoxville began soliciting proposals to redevelop the parking lot on the south side of Magnolia Avenue. The area was designated during Mayor Indya Kincannon’s second term as the focal point for the Magnolia Avenue Commercial Corridor revitalization, intended to improve connectivity between East Knoxville and a variety of amenities and developments throughout the city.

Nearly two years earlier, Emerald Youth formed the East Area Community Engagement Committee, comprised of local leaders and stakeholders, to engage more than 500 community members. Those discussions helped shape the project to address the needs and aspirations of the community. That feedback was critical to refining the vision and adapting the project to East Knoxville, Emerald Youth said in a news release.

The initiative has garnered support from prominent entities such as the African American Equity Restoration Task Force, the Knoxville Area Urban League and the Burlington Business District Association. Other community leaders have also expressed support.

“Emerald has proven over the years, and especially through the Lonsdale Youth Complex, that they truly want to help youth and support communities that have the greatest need. I am excited about the opportunity to have Emerald Youth Complex here in East Knoxville,” City Councilor Gwen McKenzie, whose district includes the proposed development site, told Know News.

She said the programming will benefit students and meet the needs of others in the community, and praised Emerald Youth for “doing a great job of immediately engaging community ambassadors to gather feedback on resources we would like in the facility.”

The facility and programs are inspired by the Lonsdale complex

The proposed project is projected to be a $20 million investment. Emerald Youth Foundation will work with major regional health care providers and housing developers to create a facility that is consistent with the community’s history and culture while addressing educational enrichment, athletic, housing, and health care needs.

The facility would include indoor and outdoor grass sports fields, outdoor basketball courts, throwing and batting lanes and a pavilion. The 37,000-square-foot complex would include community spaces, education centers, fitness and performance training areas and a health center. The plan is modeled after Emerald’s Haslam-Sansom Ministry Complex in Lonsdale, which opened in 2019.

“Our prayer, of course, is that we are selected as the winner,” Steve Diggs, president and CEO of the Emerald Youth Foundation, said in a statement. “The Haslam-Sansom Ministry Complex in Lonsdale has been ‘transformational,’ as reported by the CEO (of Knoxville’s Community Development Corporation), and we believe it is a model that can truly transform not only neighborhoods in the city, but also the lives of young people and their families.”

Emerald presented its proposal to the city on July 1. If the plan is approved, the nonprofit will formalize the project with additional community input.

City spokesman Eric Vreeland told Knox News that no date has been set for when the Knoxville City Council might consider possible proposals for the property.

Collaboration with other youth organizations in East Knoxville is part of the plan

Emerald Youth Foundation Marketing and Communications Director John Crooks told Knox News the organization will offer its own daily child and youth development programs, but also sees the facility as an extension of the Lonsdale complex, hoping to provide space and other programs to the East Knoxville community.

“We will be working with other youth-serving entities in a similar way to what we have done at the Haslam-Sansom Ministry Complex in Lonsdale, where many community groups have utilized the space, including Thrive Lonsdale, Lonsdale Homes Residents Association, Lonsdale Homecoming, Leadership Knoxville, Zaevion Dobson Foundation, as well as countless community members for receptions, parties, anniversaries, potlucks, get-togethers and more,” Crooks said.

Rashaad Woods, director of Renounce Denounce Gang Intervention of Knoxville, said he hopes the project will open up new opportunities outside of sports.

“We have a housing problem, we have a violence problem, and we have a food desert in this area. Our kids need jobs and access to vocational training. While I support this proposal, I hope to see more than just a sports facility if this project moves forward,” Woods told Knox News. “I really want to see programs that address real needs in this community, so if they can provide that as well, I see that as a positive.”

Some leaders express concerns about the proposed facility

Despite widespread support, others say the bill highlights a lack of resources and opportunities for smaller organizations.

“There’s a perception in Knoxville that white-led organizations that have the resources and access have the right to our black kids. I see it almost as gentrification. These organizations get all the funding and resources, while we who have served this area for years get the crumbs. I would rather see a proposal that allows others to use this land and space,” Reggie Jenkins told Knox News. Jenkins has been serving East Knoxville youth for more than 25 years through his nonprofit UUNIK Academy.

“It doesn’t give us as a community the authority to allow other outside organizations to come in and do the work that we’re already doing. We keep getting crumbs, and it speaks to equity that these large nonprofits can come in and do what they want because they have the access and the resources,” Jenkins said. “Equity is giving that same access and resources to Black-led organizations that are also able to serve this community.”

Angela Dennis is a Knox News reporter covering race, justice and equality. Email [email protected].