When the 1-cent sales tax increase was instituted in 2019 at Hattiesburg hotels, motels and restaurants, city officials had a two-fold goal in mind: to use the funds from that tax for projects that would impact the quality of life for residents in a positive way and grow the next generation of role models and athletes to come from the area.
Another accomplishment was made in that area recently, when a ribbon cutting was held at a new batting cage at Vernon Dahmer Park off of Country Club Road. Mayor Toby Barker was joined by other officials – as well as Major League Baseball players Anthony Alford and Joe Gray Jr., who both come from the area – during a ceremony on Jan. 8 to celebrate the occasion.
“(The people who use these cages) may not suit up for the Milwaukee Brewers or the Pittsburgh Pirates or even the Hattiesburg High Tigers one day, but they will learn teamwork, work ethic, and how to be a productive citizen in our community,” Barker said. “(Volunteer coach) Joe Gray Sr. had talked about the lack of facilities for parents, grandparents, coaches and other role models to bring kids and work with them.
“That spurred the idea of investing in a hitting facility, a batting cage, which we wanted to be nice and be protected from the rain, with lights.”
The new facility features two turf-surfaced hitting areas with cover and lighting, and a pitching machine is expected to arrive in early March. The cost of the project was approximately $48,000, with work handled by Gray Builders of Hattiesburg.
“This is a great facility that we have here, and I hope it serves the community by supporting programs – baseball, softball, as well as our Tee-ball program,” said Chris McGee, director of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department. “This also gives the parents and coaches the opportunity to teach out of the weather.
“The facility is also a great amenity for the Hattiesburg Little League program, so when they’re hosting tournaments out here, this is like an extra field. Teams can come in and get batting practice while other teams are out on the field practicing or playing.”
Ward 5 Councilman Nicholas Brown was instrumental in selecting the location for the new batting cage.
“This project is extra special for me, because I grew up playing Little League baseball in this park,” Brown said. “I hope that we can continue to invest in our recreational activities and facilities, and that we can continue to invest in our youth, because our youth is our future.
“It’s up to us to mold our youth and provide them with the opportunity for success.”
Gray Jr., who played at Hattiesburg High School and was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers in the second round of the 2018 MLB Draft, spoke about the importance of making opportunities and resources available to youth.
“Opportunity is one of the single greatest things that a human and an athlete can ever get, but the availability and accessibility to resources can either help or restrict a kid from unlocking his full potential,” he said. “I thank the mayor and the City of Hattiesburg for putting this (batting cage) here and giving softball and baseball players of a young age the opportunity to hone in on their craft.”
The 1-cent tax increase, which was approved by voters in April 2019 with an 81 percent approval rate, was expected to bring in approximately $4.2 million in new revenue. Half of those funds are earmarked for 17 Parks and Recreation Department projects around the city, while the other half will be used for renovations at Reed Green Coliseum on the University of Southern Mississippi campus.
Initial projections expected the tax to generate about $100,000 a month for the city and another $100,000 for Southern Miss, but through the first four months of the tax, the measure generated an average of $117,000 per month. In addition to the batting cages, projects completed with the help of the tax include a walking trail extension at Duncan Lake, lighting improvements at the Tatum Tennis Court Complex, the transformation of the former Hattiesburg American building on Main Street into a public arts center, and the replacement of the gymnasium floor at Thames Elementary School.
“I want to thank the citizens of Hattiesburg for passing the tax,” McGee said. “Without your forethought and dedication to passing that, these facilities could not be built.”