Fillingane: $500K was earmarked for Sumrall tennis

By HASKEL BURNS,

On the matter of funds from the BP Settlement Bill, one thing is certain for Lamar County: $500,000 of the $750 million distributed statewide has been allotted to the county for the construction of recreational facilities in District 5, which includes Sumrall and part of U.S. 98.

What’s not so certain is where that money will be spent, as officials are still unsure whether to put it toward tennis courts on Mississippi 42 in Sumrall or a proposed sports complex on U.S. 98 near Oloh.

The confusion comes after the recent passage of the bill – formally known as Senate Bill 2002 – in which Sen. Joey Fillingane, who co-authored the bill, intended for the funds to go to the tennis courts. Members of the Lamar County Board of Supervisors, however, say they were unaware of Fillingane’s intentions – as the bill only stipulates the money be spent on recreation in District 5 – when they proposed to use the $500,000 for the upcoming sports complex.

That idea didn’t sit well with members of the Sumrall Tennis Association, who stopped by Monday’s board meeting to let supervisors know they have been privately raising money over the last year for the tennis courts. STA president Katie Walker and vice president Michael Haddox told board members in addition to those funds, $400,000 of the BP settlement money should have been earmarked for the cost of six proposed tennis courts in Sumrall. 

“The half-million dollars was because of the community,” Walker said. “I’m sorry for not inviting y’all (to previous meetings) – I’m new at this and I’m learning, and next time I will invite everybody to any meetings we have.

“But it was intended for our purpose – we worked with the Mississippi State Tennis Association and the United States Tennis Association on what it would take to get these courts.”

District 4 Supervisor Phillip Carlisle said the majority of the board is in favor of the centralized sports complex, rather than individual sports facilities in separate communities, because a centralized location would serve more households and individuals. In addition, supervisors voted in September to approve a 20-year comprehensive plan for the county, which included the centralized sports complex, before they knew about the $500,000 or the STA.

“I fully support your efforts – I don’t think there’s anyone that’s for recreation more than me,” Carlisle told Walker. “But if you build that (tennis) complex where you’re talking about building that complex and you draw a 5-mile circle, you’re touching about 1,600 households.

“If we step somewhere between Sumrall and Oak Grove, for instance, and you build a sportsplex, it may have your tennis, it may have your soccer, parks, tracks, and maybe even pickleball. So you’re talking about a complex that would touch about 5,800 households if you draw that same 5-mile circle. So that’s where the majority of this board is headed, and we didn’t know about your organization.”

Fillingane said although it’s up to supervisors as to where the funds will be spent, he would be disappointed if the $500,000 was used for anything other than his intended purpose of the Sumrall tennis courts.

“The soccer and tennis complex has already been started – it’s being built and the land has already been purchased,” he said. “They (the bill writers) asked me how I wanted to word it in the bill, and I didn’t have the legal description to give them at that point, so I just said let it be located in District 5 in Lamar County, never having any idea that the supervisors would have other ideas on how they would want to spend that money.”

Fillingane said he will work with supervisors to figure out the best way to distribute the funds, and he’s confident a beneficial solution can be reached.

“We’ve always worked well together in the past, and even in the special session we got $1 million for the cost of absorbing the Lumberton School District into the Lamar County School District.

“So clearly that did not benefit my area of Sumrall; it benefited the county as a whole, and certainly the Lumberton area, more so than my own area. We have worked in the past to help the entire county. But moving forward, if I know about a project in the county, I am always open to helping with that.”

The sports complex was discussed at a supervisors meeting late last month, with supervisors appointing a “vision team” to map out the complex, including location and cost. The team – which is made up of Carlisle, District 1 Supervisor Steve Lampton, Director of Parks and Recreation Heath Sellers and one resident from each of the county’s five districts – will visit similar sites in the region to best determine a course of action for the complex.

“The point is access to courts – having a court 30 minutes away does not help us at all,” Haddox said. “I grew up 45 minutes away from the closest tennis court, and I had to illegally drive to take tennis lessons my whole life.

“I was the poster child for why Sumrall needs tennis courts, because anyone else in my position would not have had the means to play tennis in Sumrall because you don’t have access to courts.”

The BP Settlement Bill also allotted $1.5 million for safety improvements at the intersection of Mississippi 589 and Scruggs Road in Sumrall, which is near where Fillingane lives. Although that project is close to Fillingane’s home, he said the work is meant for the benefit of the county and not for any one individual.

“(District 5 Supervisor) Dale Lucus went around the whole area that’s affected by this really bad intersection off of Highway 589 into Scruggs Road,” he said. “There’s about five subdivisions that are now located on that road, including the one I live in.

“He got about 200 signatures on a petition that he could show anybody … who’d want to try to make that accusation. This wasn’t for Joey; this is something that the area petitioned the supervisors for.”