Staff Photo By C.B. Schmelter / The section of Montague Park along East 23rd Street may soon become the scene of a multimillion-dollar makeover with soccer fields, a pavilion and sand courts.

Montague Park, a 49-acre public space off East 23rd Street given to the city of Chattanooga by the Montague family in 1911, has had a myriad of lives in its 110 years — especially if you count what was planned to be there, what was there, what is there and what shouldn't have been there.

Next week, the nonprofit Chattanooga FC Foundation will seek yet another new life for the park, one with synthetic turf soccer fields, sand volleyball courts and other upgrades.

It will request the Chattanooga Hamilton County Regional Planning Commission approve 13 acres of the park for a 40-year ground lease, which would next need a nod from the Chattanooga City Council.

That's where conspiracy theorists might hold up a hand because the Chattanooga FC was founded by Mayor Tim Kelly. But Kelly resigned as chairman of the professional soccer team after the election, the foundation is a separate arm from the team and a request for proposals for use of the park was initiated under the tenure of former Mayor Andy Berke.

Since the proposal for the fields will come with a recommendation for approval from the Regional Planning Agency, we hope the planning commission will give the project its thumbs-up.

Krue Brock, director of the foundation, said money for the makeover would come from private funds donated to the foundation. He said no city money is expected for the project.

When completed, the space also is expected to have a 22,000-square-foot pavilion, restrooms, concession area, lights and 180 parking spaces. Rugby matches already played at the park are expected to continue.

The rear of the acreage is occupied by one of Chattanooga's underappreciated jewels, the Sculpture Fields at Montague Park, a free, 33-acre outdoor art museum — the largest sculpture park in the Southeast — with more than 40 large-scale sculptures. Officials with the FC Foundation envision a trail linking it with the new fields.

The planned soccer fields are emblematic of the change in the city since one of the park's previous lives as a softball mecca — attracting some 150,000 people annually — largely from 1971 to 1983. In 1971, few Chattanoogans played soccer, and most had little familiarity with the sport. Today, it rivals youth baseball and softball for participants, and thousands of fans — in non-COVID times — attend Chattanooga FC games at Finley Stadium.

It is also a favorite sport for Hispanic residents, who were few in number (51 from Mexico) in the city, according to the 1970 census. Now, according to the Census Bureau, Hispanics comprise 6.3% of the city's population.

The FC Foundation also oversees and manages Highland Park Commons, where public soccer fields and league play offer recreation in an area of the city inhabited by many Hispanic residents. The fields at Montague might be able to broaden the number of people involved in such leagues.

The park is regularly monitored by the city and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation because of one of the lives it never should have lived — that as a sanitary landfill. Although the idea was to build the acreage up to a level where it could be used, in 1983 the site was included in a list of 139 hazardous waste sites the state wanted to clean up with $2 million in federal Superfund money.

A 1991 Greenpeace toxic waste report said surface soils at the park contained toluene and other dangerous chemicals, and that subsurface soils included elevated levels of arsenic, copper, lead, acetone and PCBs. Nevertheless, the park remained open until 2003, when officials said it could not meet state landfill cap standards.

The soil was remediated over the next nine years, and other lives for the park were considered: a par-3 golf course and driving range, volleyball and basketball courts, and softball fields (again). They joined the previous either lived or dreamed-of lives of the facility: a swimming area, zoo and natural science center, municipal buildings (including a jail replacement), recreational park with swimming pool, athletic fields and tennis courts, and a motocross track.

We don't imagine Mary T. Montague could have envisioned what all would transpire on the acreage she deeded the city in memory of her husband, Theodore Montague, on Dec. 22, 1911.

But two years ago, when Chattanooga FC first discussed building multipurpose fields, her great-grandson, Carrington Montague, foresaw a continuation of what she had in mind.

"My great-grandfather and great-grandmother gave this land to the city for people to enjoy a park," he said. "Everyone wants recreation and access. Back at the turn of the last century it was a place for people to go and sit under the shade trees to get away from the city. We hope that a long generation of Montagues to come continue to make sure it is a park open to all."

With the Sculpture Fields and the athletic fields, Montague Park indeed appears to have a future as a diverse space for a wide range of Chattanoogans.