East Knoxville fields to get $1.6 million makeover at Claude Walker Park

A rendering unveiled May 17, 2021, at Claude Walker Park shows the $1.6 million philanthropic investment by GEM Community Development Group to rebuild the ballfields and improve youth sports.

With renderings of a $1.6 million renovation on the infield, dozens of people gathered in center field at Claude Walker Park to listen to plans to transform the youth ballpark in East Knoxville as part of the community investment connected to building a new multi-use stadium on the edge of the Old City.

Dozens of community and business leaders attended the event, including Steve Davis, president of GEM Community Development Group; Randy Boyd, founder of Boyd Sports; Doug Kirchhofer, CEO of Boyd Sports; Dr. Keith Gray, board chair of Emerald Youth Foundation; Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon; Bill Haslam, former governor of Tennessee and mayor of Knoxville; Sanford Miller, director of sports ministries for Emerald Youth Foundation; Kaylin Chesney, director of area ministries for Emerald Youth Foundation; and Willie Anderson, who has managed Claude Walker Park for more than 30 years.

“In my wildest dreams, I never could have imagined someone coming along to invest over $1 million in these fields,” Anderson said. “Recently, we’ve had games scheduled and other teams from across our city have refused to play here. That is troubling for a number of reasons, but mostly it’s disappointing for our young people who so desperately need an outlet to just play and have fun. Today changes all of that.”

Also in attendance were State Rep. Sam McKenzie and members of the Austin-East Magnet High School softball team, which plays at Claude Walker Park, located at 2945 Wilson Ave., and will have a new ballfield next season.

Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon stands on the infield at Claude Walker Park with members of the Austin-East Magnet High School softball team in front of a rendering of the new park.

The park is owned by the City of Knoxville, and the Emerald Youth Foundation will manage the investment.

According to a news release, the $1.6 million philanthropic gift from GEM Community Development Group contains two key components:

  • Investment of $1.1 million in Claude Walker Park, located adjacent to Austin-East Magnet High School, which serves the school’s teams as well as community recreation programs such as Baby Roadrunners football that will include new state-of-the-art turf for both fields, as well as improvements to lighting, fencing, and hitting and pitching lanes and cages.
  • Recurring operational investment that will support youth sports commissions inside the city for items such as uniforms and equipment, along with additional operations support.
Steve Davis, right, president of GEM Community Development Group, and Bill Haslam, former governor of Tennessee and mayor of Knoxville, attend the community investment announcement at Claude Walker Park and Ballfields.

As outlined HERE, investment in the community is a significant part of the efforts to return professional baseball to Knoxville. A publicly financed stadium would cost approximately $65 million and will be built in a blighted area on the edge of the Old City. Boyd and GEM Community Development Group have proposed a $100 million+ mixed-use development surrounding the stadium.

“This is my home,” said Davis, who grew up in Knoxville and played football for the late Johnny Majors at the University of Tennessee. “This is a community that I’ve loved all my life.”

Davis, a successful businessman who splits his time between Chicago and Knoxville, added that the lessons he learned in athletics and business were life-changing. When Boyd challenged him to get involved in this development, “I said, ‘Sign me up.’ “

Randy Boyd, center, founder of Boyd Sports, talks to Steve Davis, left, president of GEM Community Development Group, before the news conference to announce a $1.6 million investment in youth sports.

Like others in attendance, including Miller and Anderson, Davis grew up playing at Cal Johnson Recreation Center, which still stands but lost its baseball fields to the construction and expansion of Neyland Drive.

Kincannon also announced that the city would provide new lighting, landscaping and streetscaping around the park.

“This is about believing in this community,” Kincannon said. “I want to personally thank Steve Davis and GEM Community Development Group for their generous gift. Youth sports are one of the places that young people learn about leadership, make lasting friendships and connect with mentors. This is an investment that will benefit children and families for years to come.”

After the event ended, State Sen. Sam McKenzie, center, gathers with Jeremy Cook of Pinnacle Financial Partners, left, and Bishop Kevin Perry of Word of Life Ministries who delivered the prayer before the news conference.

Community recreation programs benefiting from the project include Center City Youth Sports Programs, Central Athletic Youth Association (Inskip), Holston Chilhowee Recreation Commission, Knoxville Area Youth Alliance, Knoxville Falcons Youth Organization, Mechanicsville Community Athletics Association, South Knoxville Youth Sports and Emerald Youth Foundation.

“According to a study we completed several years ago, fewer than 20% of young people in Knoxville are playing a sport of any kind,” Chesney said. “In part due to inadequate facilities as well as expensive equipment, youth participation in baseball and softball in our city has been declining. This investment addresses both barriers in direct ways, and we are excited to help facilitate this gift.”

Emerald Youth Foundation will manage capital facility improvements done in partnership with the City of Knoxville using Elite Diversified Construction, a minority-owned general contractor, located in East Knoxville.

“I stand here before today not as the board chair but as a former baseball player and now a softball coach,” said Gray, the chief medical officer at the University of Tennessee Medical Center, who extolled the benefit of sports for youth and the importance of investing in the community.

Construction is anticipated to begin in early fall after the summer baseball season ends – the field and home plate area were lined with chalk at the event because games will be played that evening – to ensure fields are ready for spring sports.

“I grew up playing on the fields at Claude Walker and my children still play there today,” Chesney said. “This is a game changer for the East Knoxville community.”

The entire project, which includes $100 million-plus in private development around the stadium by GEM, is a game changer.

Let’s bring it all home, Knoxville.