New boxing rings in Freedom Park herald shift in recreation

A two-ring boxing center will open next week at Macon’s Freedom Park and will be the first “specialty center” operated by Macon-Bibb County’s Recreation Department.

On Sept. 6, the facility will open with a splash, hosting a major tournament with at least 24 bouts, Recreation Director Dale “Doc” Dougherty said.

“We’ve got boxers coming in from all different states around us,” he said.

In the longer term, the new arena will be home to a regular boxing club, but most of the people expected to use it probably will never throw a punch in a ring, Dougherty said.

“The objective here is not just boxing,” he said. “It’s setting up a conditioning club also.”

The facility is a tribute to Frank Ray, who has kept the local boxing scene alive for 30 years, overseeing a boxing club in an old warehouse downtown, Dougherty said.

“We owe a lot to him (for) really keeping it running,” Dougherty said. “The arena itself is named the Bishop Frank Ray Arena.”

The warehouse where Ray’s Middle Georgia Amateur Boxing Club worked out was sold and closed in January.

So many of his followers are expected to join the new Macon-Bibb United Boxing & Conditioning Club, Dougherty said.

But the Freedom Park facility is really the start of a whole new program, focusing on fitness, he said. It will offer “toddler fit” classes for ages 2 to 5, an after-school exercise program for ages 6 to 9 and more exercise -- including a little boxing -- for ages 10 to 14, Dougherty said. The facility is open to the general public, regardless of age.

Those interested in using the boxing gym regularly can pay a $20 monthly fee for unlimited access, and boxing team membership will cost about $30 per month, he said.

There had been talk of turning one of the city-county recreation centers into a boxing facility for a couple of years, said Dougherty, who wants to offer several specialized functions at different centers. Dougherty wants to move away from the 1970s idea of a “cookie-cutter” center in every neighborhood that offers basketball as its main activity.

“We’ve got eight of those,” Dougherty said.

There are probably 100 basketball courts in Macon-Bibb County, including schools and churches, he said. While basketball should still be offered, Dougherty said, he’d like to develop a rock-climbing feature, which now requires a drive to Atlanta, and host a science, technology, engineering and math program at another center. That would complement what Bibb County schools are doing and draw a group of non-athletes to use the centers, he said.

The Freedom Park gym’s transformation and new boxing program are one result of the special purpose local option sales tax that voters approved in November 2011.

“If it wasn’t for SPLOST money, we wouldn’t be able to do this at all,” Dougherty said.

The SPLOST included about $39 million for recreation projects. Much of that is earmarked for the eight recreation centers and their associated parks, but millions will go to repair years of neglect, said Clay Murphey, SPLOST project manager.

Freedom Park as a whole is to get $3.6 million, but most of that hasn’t been spent yet, he said.

“Freedom Park involves more than just the rec center,” Murphey said. The ballfield needs work, the eroding shore of the parks’ small lake must be rebuilt and the path around it redone, he said.

But some of the other work does benefit the boxing arena. The gym is now air conditioned for the first time, Murphey said. Roof, floors and bathrooms were all redone at the facility that hadn’t seen major work in 20 years, he said.

Similarly large-scale work is going on or planned at all the recreation centers, Murphey said.

But at Freedom Park, the actual amount needed to create the boxing arena from the old basketball court was only about $35,000, Dougherty said.

The arena has two rings, punching bags and a workout area, and the new telescoping bleachers can seat 600 people, he said. Dougherty expects those to be packed with spectators for the first tournament, which starts right after the 1 p.m. ribbon cutting.

It’s good enough that boxing officials in Georgia are now considering Macon as a host site for future tournaments, most of which are now held in Atlanta, he said.

There is a camera above each boxing ring, so bouts will be shown on big-screen TVs throughout the building, Dougherty said. They might even be broadcast on the government-access cable channel, or be recorded on DVD and sold to the fighters, he said.

The facility soon will have a few treadmills and elliptical machines but not a full weight room, Dougherty said. It may, however, feature a satellite-linked movie screen that could show a wide variety of exercise instruction without requiring the center to have specialized staff on hand, he said.

“You can program this thing with hundreds of different classes,” Dougherty said.