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Sports complex is likely on unused school site Facility viewed as benefit to shopping area


Columbia's first multi- sports complex likely will be built on land once intended for a high school in Harper's Choice village -- a move intended to revitalize the community's troubled shopping center.

The complex -- dubbed the "SportsPark" by Columbia Association (CA) officials -- would include batting cages, miniature golf, an outdoor play area similar to the indoor Discovery Zone playgrounds, playing fields and an outdoor covered ice rink that in the summer could be used as a pavilion. It could open in the summer of 1997.

"The problem with Harper's Choice is that we need more people moving around, ending the perception that it's a scary place," said Hope Sachwald, the village's representative on the Columbia Council. "This will bring people to the area and help our businesses."

SportsPark would be built on part of 15 to 20 acres now vacant near Rivendell and Cedar lanes -- close to Harper's Choice Middle School, Cedar Lane School and the aging Harper's Choice Village Center. The BMX racecourse on the land would remain undisturbed.

During the planning of Columbia, the land was set aside by Howard Research and Development -- a subsidiary of the Rouse Co. -- for use by the Howard County school board as a site for a future high school. Nearly all of Columbia's schools have been built on land reserved by Rouse.

But after holding the land for more than two decades, the school board turned back control of it to Rouse late last week.

"We have determined we no longer need the site," said schools Superintendent Michael E. Hickey.

County maintains fields

The county Department of Parks and Recreation maintains four athletic fields on the land that are used by softball and baseball leagues, said Jeffrey Borne, department director. He said he was unaware of SportsPark plans and was unsure how the fields might be affected.

A Rouse spokeswoman said the company may use a small portion of the land to expand the village's shopping center, but said no plans have been drawn. She said the company does not intend to sell any of the property for residential development.

"We don't have any specific uses in mind," said Rouse spokeswoman Cathy Lickteig. "It's an asset to the community, and we think that something should go there that will be of benefit to the community."

Ms. Lickteig said the company expects that CA -- the nonprofit association that manages the community's recreational programs -- will end up taking over most of the land.

Association officials, who began talking last fall about building a sports complex at an undetermined site, say the school board's return of the land makes construction of the park there almost a certainty.

The other site that has been considered consists of 6.5 acres in Columbia's Long Reach village, across the street from the new Long Reach High School.

But Long Reach residents have expressed reservations about a sports park while Harper's Choice residents have been enthusiastic, said Rob Goldman, the association's vice president charge of membership services.

"There's one community that's very positive, and one that doesn't really want it," Mr. Goldman said. "I think it's an easy choice where we'll look to build it.

"It's a fortuitous thing, because we were looking for an area to build the park and Harper's Choice was looking for ways to revitalize their village center."

Shopping center struggles

The village's aging shopping center has struggled in recent years, most recently with the Dec. 16 departure of the Valu Food grocery store.

Ms. Lickteig said negotiations are continuing as Rouse looks for a replacement store, but it's unclear when a company will be selected for the space.

Members of the village board believe that SportsPark could bring many new customers to the shopping center from all over Columbia, Ms. Sachwald said.

CA's proposed budget for next year has $70,000 to begin architectural and engineering planning of the SportsPark.

The project still needs approval from the Columbia Council and the county's zoning process.

Some of the roads in the area also likely would need to be redone, Ms. Sachwald said.

$2.5 million projected cost

The rough cost estimate for building the project is $2.5 million, Mr. Goldman said.

An analysis of SportsPark projected that its annual profit could reach $285,000, although more conservative estimates put it at $105,000.

Based on a project proposal prepared by the association, SportsPark would include:

* A 36-hole miniature golf course built around waterfalls and streams.

* Seven to nine batting cages.

* A large "playport," similar to an outdoor version of a Discovery Zone playground.

* Playing fields that could be used for a variety of sports, including softball and soccer.

* An open-air pavilion that would serve as a regulation-size ice rink in the winter. In the summer, the pavilion could be used for corporate functions of up to 500 people.

The entire SportsPark also could be a site for association summer camps.

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