Photo: Pictured above, an artist’s rendering details the soccer portion of the Etowah County Mega Sports Complex located in Rainbow City and Gadsden after completion.
By Katie Bohannon, Staff Writer
After Craig Ford was elected to the state legislature in the early 2000s, an idea formed to research the attainable concept of a sports complex located in Etowah County. In 2015, Ford passed a bill establishing the Etowah County Mega Sports Complex Authority, unifying a collection of people dedicated to the goal of creating a state-of-the-art Etowah County Mega Sports Complex to serve its community, drive revenue creation through tournament hosting and allow championship sports teams the opportunity to play closer to home.
In 2017, the authority purchased 139 acres off of Steele Station Road debt-free. In searching for a location, the authority considered a number of factors, primarily proximity to major highways and hotels with necessary acreage for development. Based on the criteria, the authority determined the complex’s location appropriate for future construction.
Chair of the Sports Complex Authority since 2015, Ralph Burke is a community builder. He believes that each individual has a responsibility to act in a manner that leaves his or her community better than it was once found. Though his time as chair ends soon, Burke remains determined to pass the torch to hands that will protect what he has nurtured. To the next chair or members of the authority, Burke wants to present something spectacular that his successors can develop into something ever greater.
“We want to provide as much as we can, for as many people as we can,” said Burke.
With appropriate funding, the Etowah Mega Sports Complex’s goal is to provide accommodations for as many “travel” sports as possible. Due to the number of participants in Etowah County youth soccer leagues, soccer was selected as the primary focus of the complex’s first development phase. Apart from team sports, the complex plans to include green space, walking trails, a “bark park” and disc golf. Ford, Burke and the authority promote excellence in all of the Complex’s facets, focusing on quality accommodations for athletes and guests alike.
“I have a personal goal that our concession stand will serve the best hamburger in North Alabama…I’m serious about that,” said Burke. “I want our burgers to have such a reputation that people will call and see if the concession stand is open because they just have to have one.”
The complex’s construction is divided into two phases. Phase I began construction in Nov. 2019 to develop soccer fields, parking, restrooms and concessions. Though rain over the past few weeks slowed the heavy equipment, the authority hopes Phase I will reach completion in late summer. Phase II explores softball and baseball, including additional parking, restrooms and concessions. Burke explained projecting a starting date for construction is difficult, since funding remains a vital obstacle in any project of this caliber.
“To the north of us, the City of Albertville committed over $40 million to a complex that will include a lazy river – they have made a commitment,” said Burke. “We are spending $5.1 million on Phase I. Until something changes, we will have to piece our complex together as funding becomes available.”
In serving Etowah County citizens, the complex strives to benefit the community. Burke hopes that as a result of the complex, existing businesses flourish and grow along with the local tax base and new, unimagined businesses build and open to further develop Etowah County. Burke encourages community members to explore what the complex will offer and discuss with the authority suggestions on how to make the complex better so that visitors and residents alike will leave the complex with the same positive perspective of Etowah County and its cities.
Burke foresees the complex serving the Etowah County community for generations to come. Like all facilities, the complex will require periodical updates and refurbishment for existing sports, or even redesigning for new purposes. Ensuring that the complex remains moldable and adaptable is an aspect of the authority’s vision: to create a serviceable environment that withstands the tests of time, developing a complex that grows and prospers along with its community members, embracing its needs and promoting a mindset of unity in a place where people gather and thrive.
“How [the complex] is used will be up to the next generation,” said Burke. “We dedicate the property for recreational use and hand it to the next generation as a blessing.”