Update: Some Bluffton residents critical of Eagles Field partnership

Home plate of Eagles Field at the Sam Bennett Sports Complex on Buck Island Road on Sept. 23, 2015.
Home plate of Eagles Field at the Sam Bennett Sports Complex on Buck Island Road on Sept. 23, 2015.

Some angry residents in Bluffton's Buck Island-Simmonsville neighborhood say they are being excluded from a proposed partnership between the town and the group that manages Eagles Field.

A group of about a half-dozen residents spoke out Tuesday at a Town Council meeting against the agreement and criticized leaders of the committee that oversees the baseball field in the Sam Bennett Sports Complex, which is a landmark in the predominantly African-American community.

Under the agreement, which already has the council's blessing, the town would provide maintenance and seek grants to improve the field, which has been neglected over the years.

In exchange, the Bluffton Eagles Community Action Committee would make the field on Buck Island Road available for town-sponsored events such as the annual National Night Out.

Critics say neighborhood residents who are not affiliated with the action committee have been shut out of the process of developing the agreement and that the partnership is a thinly veiled attempt by the town to take over the field.

Sharon Brown said that by excluding neighbors, the committee has "disrespected" and "discounted the community."

"The committee has been poorly managed," said Johnnie Brown.

Leaders care more about "power and control" than improving the community, he said.

Town and committee officials disagreed.

The goal of the partnership is to add value to the field, town manager Marc Orlando said.

Future grants could help pay for new seating, restrooms and concession areas, as well as new "barbecue pits and eating areas to better serve the community as a year-round gathering location," according to town planning documents.

Sharon Brown accused Fred Hamilton, who is president of the Bluffton Eagles Community Action Committee, of having a conflict of interest for serving on the board and the Town Council. The nonprofit committee is not affiliated with town government.

Hamilton defended himself, saying he is "a man of integrity."

"I want to see Eagles Field go to a different level and make some significant progress," he said. "It needs to be enhanced and (that takes) partnerships. ... A partnership with the town is just one aspect that we are looking for. We're also looking for a partnership with the community."

Mayor Lisa Sulka denied the town is trying to take over the field and said workshops could be held to improve communication among the town, the action committee and the community.

The committee must approve the partnership with the town before the agreement takes effect. A date has not been set for the committee to vote on the agreement.

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