Sandhill Fields opens Wednesday in Georgetown

Sandhill Fields, a multifield athletic complex that includes pickleball courts, opens to the public Wednesday evening. (Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe)

GEORGETOWN — Through the forest, the natural beauty extends beyond the eight athletic fields, six pickleball courts, picnic pavilions, walking trail, tot lot playground and other amenities.

Sandhill Fields, a $6.5 million private/public project that will officially open to the public Wednesday, features a tale of the trail.

“That is my pride and joy,” said Bobby Horsey, vice president of Sussex Sports Center Foundation Inc. “It is an asset that the county and everybody in the area should be proud of. It is really a walk through nature.”

Carved out of a predominantly wooded area that includes pond/water components, the 3.5-mile walking trail is also home to a regulation 3.1-mile cross country course.

SSCF president Joe Schell, in an August interview, noted that “a distinguishing feature” of the area is its aboveground boardwalk, which encompasses a good portion of the trail. The rest of the trail is cinder.

“It was wetlands underneath, so (the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control) … decided to allow us to build up a walkway,” Mr. Schell said.

On bikes, state Sen. Brian Pettyjohn and his wife, Kelly, check out the wooded trail that is part of the Sandhill Fields complex in Georgetown. The trail features a boardwalk portion. (Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe)

Expectations are that the trail, which wraps around several bodies of water, will get plenty of public use from the community, as well as become a host for cross country events, potentially major scholastic events.

Scott Thomas, Southern Delaware Tourism executive director, checked out the boardwalk amenity during Sandhill Fields’ preopening event held Sept. 2, at which sponsors, supporters and those who made the complex possible were acknowledged.

“I didn’t walk too far but walked around the corner to get a sense of it,” said Mr. Thomas. “It is a neat feature.”

Mr. Horsey says hikers, walkers and trailblazers can expect to share the woods with wildlife.

“We did very minimal clearing,” said Mr. Horsey of David G. Horsey & Sons Inc., the project’s contractor. “You’ll see all kinds of wildlife as you are walking in there. When we were building it, we saw deer, turkeys, foxes — everything. It is truly a nature walk through that wooded section.”

Seeds for Sandhill Fields, designed to promote an active, healthy lifestyle and foster team sports and a social network for children and adults from different parts of the county, were planted when Mr. Horsey and Darren Short of Georgetown met at a restaurant in 2016. The topic was available land, preferably centrally located in the county. That discussion led to Joe Schell.

“It all started at a meeting at the Georgetown Pizza King,” said Mr. Horsey. “They asked me to meet with (Mr. Schell). They needed my help. And I said, ‘Well, I know the place. Let me make the phone call to the landowner.’ That is how it all started.”

Mr. Schell agreed to come on board.

“I get credit for being the brainchild. I am not,” he said. “The brainchild was Bobby Horsey and Darren Short. They are the ones that said, ‘We need a facility like this — and don’t put it on Route 1. Bring it into the middle of the county. We need something that everybody in the county can access.’ They came to me (and said,) ‘We understand you own a bunch of land in Georgetown.’ That is where the idea started.”

Mr. Horsey said Mr. Schell’s help moved the plans forward.

“We called Joe and pitched the idea, and he ran with it,” Mr. Horsey said. “And we scored a touchdown!”

Since 2017, the SSCF’s capital campaign has raised more than $6.5 million, through generous community members, businesses, foundations and a $1.5 million loan from Sussex County Council.

Construction began in 2018.

From the start, the project has had unwavering support from the town of Georgetown.

“We have got a place here to create a lot of family memories,” said Georgetown Mayor Bill West. “I coached travel softball for 14 years. I’ve been to Baltimore, Pennsylvania, … Florida with a World Series team. It’s nice to be away from home. But it’s always nice to be back home.”

Kathleen Schell, Mr. Schell’s daughter-in-law, agreed. She shared from a motherly perspective what Sandhill Fields will mean for sports-minded families. At the preopening event, she spoke as a mom with two sons involved in sports.

“I have spent countless hours trapped in a really stinky car filled with lacrosse equipment, driving to Baltimore, Philadelphia, driving to Long Island, (New York,) with hungry kids that are grouchy … and have spent lots of nights in probably less-than-stellar accommodations, as you can imagine, in little-known places, but they have fields,” she said.

“I can’t tell you how excited I am as a mom to look around and see these fields, to know that our kids are going to spend more time playing their sports, instead of traveling to play their sports.”

Mr. Thomas envisions Sandhill Fields as a wonderful compliment to Sports at the Beach, a multifield baseball complex also near Georgetown. “It’s a nice compliment to Sports at the Beach, with having a venue for different sports,” he said.

“In good times and bad times, economically speaking, especially in economic downturns, families are going to be harder-pressed to cancel sports for their sons or daughters,” said Mr. Thomas. “I think they’ll cut a leisure vacation before that. So, what Sussex County has, it will allow them to do both, to come for a tournament and vacation as a family.”

And tournaments will draw from other states.

“We’re certainly excited about it with the opportunities that our hotels will have, because that is our mission: to keep occupancy growing year-round,” Mr. Thomas said.

Public grand opening
The public is invited to view the 90-acre Sandhill Fields complex Wednesday from 5:30-7 p.m.

Guests attending Wednesday are required to follow all COVID-19 guidelines, including masks and social distancing. In compliance with outdoor event restrictions, only 100 vehicles will be permitted to enter the complex for the grand opening.

Sandhill Fields, on Sand Hill Road just north of the CHEER Community Center, features eight Bermuda grass fields for soccer, lacrosse and field hockey, six regulation pickleball courts, a tot lot, picnic pavilions, public restrooms and the walking/cross country trail.

Sandhill Fields will be available for community use, tournaments and club practices. Field use limitations to the public will be in place during scheduled tournaments and/or club practices.

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