Plans for a 30,000 square foot youth sports complex may finally be moving forward after the Freedom From Religion Foundation requested the city of Knoxville end their partnership with the Emerald Youth Foundation.

The project was put on hold temporarily when the city received a letter from the Freedom of Religion Foundation saying that the project violated the constitution. The city was originally planning on donating 10 acres of land along with streetscaping to the Emerald Youth Foundation to build the youth sports complex in the Lonsdale neighborhood but, the Freedom of Religion Foundation said the plan violated the First Amendment that “prohibits the government from financially supporting churches.” Instead, they suggested that the Emerald Youth Foundation purchase the property at a fair market value from the city.

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However, it seems that the city and Emerald Youth Foundation have found a different solution. Pending approval by the Knoxville City Council on October 24, the Emerald Youth Foundation says the land will be purchased and developed into the $8 million-dollar multi-purpose facility and sports complex by Elisabeth and Bill Sansom and Dee and Jimmy Haslam. In addition to purchasing the land itself, the Emerald Youth Foundation said each family foundation will contribute roughly half the construction costs. The property then will then be leased to Emerald Youth for $1 a year.

The new complex will sit on Texas Avenue, between Stonewall and Sherman Streets. It is located near Sam E. Hill Preschool and adjacent to Lonsdale Homes.

The proposal features a learning center; two full-size gymnasiums with basketball courts, locker rooms, concessions and kitchen; fitness area with weight room, dance/aerobics room and cardio theater; assembly room for gatherings; and a performing arts area with practice rooms. The project also includes two multipurpose synthetic turf fields for soccer, flag football, and other sports.

The Emerald Youth Foundation says they hope the complex will be a connection point for youth and community development in a neighborhood that had been under-resourced for decades.

“We remain committed to children in the heart of our city and look forward to engaging even more deeply with families in Lonsdale,” said Emerald Youth Foundation President and CEO Steve Diggs. “I am especially grateful to the Sansom and Haslam families and their steadfast care for young people in Knoxville’s urban neighborhoods and hope the community will follow their lead to support children in our city.”

Diggs says he thinks the Sansom and Haslam families involved in the project will ensure a stable ownership structure that will provide for the long-term sustainability for the facility. Mayor Madeline Rogero said she thinks the project is a great example of partnership between the public, private and nonprofit sectors.

“I am so grateful to the Haslam and Sansom families for their long-term commitment to our city,” Mayor Rogero said. “They have shown again and again how much they care for the young people of Knoxville. With their support and the leadership of Emerald Youth Foundation, this complex will serve the Lonsdale community for many years to come.”

The Emerald Youth Foundation said both families have existing relationships with their program. Dee Haslam serves as a member of Emerald Youth’s board of trustees and Elisabeth Sansom has served as a volunteer with different ministries in Mechanicsville and Lonsdale for the last two decades. The Sansom family also helped build the Sansom Sports Complex on Dale Avenue, which opened in 2015.

“Jimmy and I have been deeply moved – not only by what is happening in our city, but by the idea that we can actually help change the trajectory for young people in Knoxville. This project is just one piece of Emerald’s comprehensive strategy to engaging young people and building leaders for our city,” said Dee Haslam, who has been connected to Emerald Youth for more than 20 years and serves as a member of Emerald Youth’s board of trustees.

“It is a real joy to walk alongside an organization like Emerald Youth as they work to impact the lives of children and families in our city,” said Bill Sansom. “The existing facility on Dale Avenue has been a great partnership for our family, and we have been pleased with Emerald’s commitment to operating it with excellence and with Christian values. We believe that this new project in Lonsdale will be truly transformational – not just for the neighborhood itself, but for the lives of those who will utilize it.”