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JASPER, Tenn. — A survey conducted in January by the Marion County Health Department shows significant interest in the potential construction of a countywide recreation center.

At the March meeting of the Marion County Commission, Jessica Hill, regional director at the Marion County Health Department, said almost 70 percent of people surveyed said they'd be interested in using a rec center if the community had one.

"It seems like there's a high interest level," she told the board.

According to the survey, 90 percent said they would be willing to pay a monthly fee between $20 and $30 for the facility's use.

"We just want to get an idea of interest level [from the board], and also to see if there would be anyone who would be interested in joining an exploratory committee because we're not builders and we're not developers," Hill said. "We're not even wealthy, so we could not just build it ourselves."

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Marion ranks 76th out of Tennessee's 95 counties in "overall health outcomes," she said.

"We want to do what we can to get people active," Hill said. "People want a place for their children to be able to go to stay out of trouble, learn skills and form relationships."

County Mayor David Jackson said he recently visited the director of the Manchester (Tenn.) Recreation Complex to learn more about the idea.

That facility was built 14 years ago for about $7 million.

"That's probably $10 to $12 million today," Jackson said.

That building includes basketball courts, a walking track, an indoor Olympic-sized pool, a wheelchair-accessible pool, an outdoor splash park, a daycare, exercise classes and weightlifting equipment.

"It's a real nice facility," Jackson said. "The city of Manchester borrowed the money to build that, and they have about 5,000 members. It's a pretty extensive operation."

Officials said constructing a facility like that in Marion would be "aiming high."

"We're not trying to say we have to have something that enormous in our community for people to exercise," Hill said. "I think if you have the right location, and you start out small, you can grow it later."

Commissioner Allen Kirk said he has visited the Manchester facility before, and his family goes there "all the time."

"I'd be willing to bet that probably close to half the cars in that parking lot were from Marion County," he said.

A steering committee would be the best way to at least start exploring the idea, Commission Chairman Gene Hargis said.

"I don't think anybody would object to trying to help in this endeavor," he said. "I think a steering committee to get this thing started would be very appropriate."

Commissioner Tommy Thompson said several churches in the county and municipal parks have space for temporary programs that could be coordinated by the health department as the committee explores the idea of a permanent building.

"Even the schools need to get involved in this," he said. "There's no point in us not having something."

Thompson cautioned that a centralized facility would be "wonderful," but the cost would have to be the primary concern.

He and other county leaders visited a recreation facility in Lewisburg, Tenn., years ago with even more extensive offerings than the one in Manchester.

"They've got a [more than] $5 [property] tax rate per $100, too, so that's all nice and good, but I remember saying if we go back to Marion County [with this idea], we're going to get kicked plum out of the county. So, I never said no more about it."

Jackson said he would set up the exploratory committee and encouraged interested volunteers for that board to contact the county mayor's office for more details.

Ryan Lewis is based in Marion County. Contact him at ryanlewis34@gmail.com.

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