Sugar Hill brings solar energy, synthetic turf to newest park

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SUGAR HILL -- Their beaming faces said it all.

As Sugar Hill Mayor Gary Pirkle, his city council, City Manager Bob Hail and Recreation Director Andy McQuagge posed with shovels behind a mound of dirt on March 28, 2008, the excitement surrounding the ceremonial first shovel turn of Gary Pirkle park was palpable.

This Saturday, nearly two years since Gwinnett's fourth-largest city embarked on its most ambitious real estate undertaking, the first 50-acre phase of the park at Suwanee Dam and Austin Garner Roads is set to open with an 11 a.m. ribbon cutting ceremony. With Mother Nature cooperating, temperatures promise to reach into the 60s.

"We had a vision of a park unlike any other," Hail said. "This is an all-encompassing park. We knew from the beginning this would be a great asset to the city of Sugar Hill."

Ultimately, following phases planned years from now, then-66-acre Pirkle Park is expected to boast soccer fields, tennis courts, putt-putt golf, a snack bar, pavilions, a playground, tennis pro shop, 1.7 miles of paved walking trails and six bridges.

The seismic effort began with Precision Planning Inc. engineering and general contractor Charles Pruitt grading a far western part of the city once perhaps unlikely for such a jewel. Finally, after postponing its opening from last year, the $7 million amalgamation of ideas and ever-evolving planning is coming to fruition.

Pirkle Park's marquee feature is 255,000 square feet of synthetic turf fields, a suggestion by Councilman Steve Edwards that's billed as the Southeast's largest contiguous synthetic surface.

Another attention-getting feature, suggested by Hail, is the 90-foot, solar lighted and cooled pavilion that covers a playground.

"It's changed a lot along the way," said Pirkle, a third-term mayor and former councilman and namesake of the park. "Really, it goes back to 2000, when we started considering the different variations."

Pirkle boasts that the park was funded solely from savings and SPLOST, without the city incurring debt typical in park construction. And like many municipal parks, it's expected to generate income from rentals, as well as hosting the Atlanta Fire United's soccer league, i9 recreation sports and potentially the Lanier Athletic Association, the feeder program for soon-to-open Lanier High.

No debt was a goal for the city of 17,000 that prides itself on deliberate planning and prudent spending.

"We didn't borrow any money and didn't raise taxes (for Pirkle Park)," Pirkle said. "In fact, during this time, we've cut taxes and cut our gas rates."

Hail points out the city's residential growth continues westward toward Ga. Highway 20 and Suwanee Dam, so a park there seemed increasingly logical. Previously, residents had to drive five miles to the opposite end of the city to E.E. Robinson Park in the southern part of Sugar Hill.

"Now we've got two separate focuses," said Don Kelemen, Sugar Hill community relations director. "We'd been trying to do everything in one park, and now having two, we can take on a lot more.

"We realized we could make (Pirkle Park) a real power point, a real destination for people to come to."

And Pirkle Park is expected to evolve beyond even current dreams, considering how many homes already line its periphery and that Hail said another 1,300 are planned within three miles of it.

Sugar Hill is completing a renovation and 18-acre enlargement of the now 54-acre Robinson, the city's former hallmark facility built in the 1970s on Level Creek Road, where Sparks in the Park fireworks illuminate downtown Broad Street a half-mile away each Independence Day.

Pirkle Park assuming the city's soccer and football focuses has allowed Robinson to transition to a baseball/softball concentration with two adult softball/baseball fields and soon two 190-foot Little League fields and three T-ball fields.

Saturday, however, the spotlight -- and sunlight -- are set to shine on Pirkle Park. The city hopes its flagstone entry transports residents further into its realization as the self-proclaimed Recreation City.

Pirkle, understandably more than anyone, can't wait for Saturday's opening ceremony, followed by an afternoon of i9 flag football and lacrosse clinics and an Atlanta Fire soccer exhibition.

"It's a great honor for me, personally, to have my name on something this wonderful," he said.