GEM pledges $1.6 million to youth athletics

John CrooksFun Outdoors, Inside 640, Our Town Kids

GEM Community Development Group has announced an unprecedented investment in city youth baseball and softball.


The more than $1.6 million philanthropic gift contains two key components:

  • An 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 Knox Area Youth Alliance and Baby Roadrunners football. This will include new state-of-the-art turf for both fields, as well as improvements to lighting, fencing, and hitting and pitching cages.
  • A recurring operational investment that will support youth sports commissions inside the city for items such as uniforms and equipment, along with additional operations support.

“Today is an exciting day for children in our city,” said Steve Davis, president of GEM Community Development Group. “As a young person who grew up in Knoxville myself, I know firsthand the value these fields have brought over decades and decades of play. After many years of heavy use, the fields are in need of improvement. We believe this investment will help transform them into a world class facility for our city’s young people.”

Architect’s rendering of proposed improvements.

Although both components of the investment will be managed by Emerald Youth Foundation, Claude Walker Park will remain a city park and continue its existing program offerings.

Emerald’s role will be to manage capital facility improvements, which will be done in partnership with the city of Knoxville using Elite Diversified Construction, a minority-owned general contractor located in the heart of the city. Construction is anticipated to begin in early fall to ensure fields are ready for spring sports.

Claude Walker Park has been managed by William Anderson for over 30 years. “In my wildest dreams, I never could have imagined someone coming along to invest over $1 million in these fields,” said Anderson.

“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,” he said.

Because of the private investment, the city of Knoxville has also committed to streetscape improvements in the area surrounding the park, such as improved lighting and other landscaping.

Mayor Indya Kincannon addresses the gathering at Claude Walker Park, adjacent to Austin-East Magnet High School.

“We are deeply grateful for this historic investment in Claude Walker Park,” said Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon. “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.”

“According to a study we completed several years ago, fewer than 20% of young people in Knoxville are playing a sport of any kind,” said Kaylin Chesney, director of area ministries – east/south for Emerald Youth Foundation. “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.

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

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 (formerly East Knox Athletic Association), Knoxville Falcons Youth Organization, Mechanicsville Community Athletics Association, South Knoxville Youth Sports and Emerald Youth Foundation.

Investment in the programs above will be managed under the direction of Sanford Miller, director of sports ministry for Emerald Youth Foundation, who also played at Claude Walker Park.

Editor’s Notes: 

  • GEM Community Development Group was formed by UT President Randy Boyd to build the proposed downtown baseball field and mixed-use development, according to a May 12, 2021, report by Scott Barker in Compass.
  • Stephen L. Davis created a business to honor the legacy of his father William E. Davis, who was known for his integrity, pride and hard work. Today, the Will Group comprises several entities that provide diverse lighting products, services and solutions. The company’s mantra is, “Where there’s a Will, there’s a way,” according to his Linkedin profile. Davis established Electrical Resource Management, the first Will Group company, in 1986. He graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1981, after playing football for Johnny Majors.
  • Claude Walker Park is located at 2945 Wilson Ave., adjacent to Dr. E.V. Davidson Community Center Community Center as well as A-E. Mr. Walker was a longtime supervisor in the city’s Parks & Rec Department.
  • The ballfield complex consists of two softball fields, a playground, concessions and restrooms. To reserve the softball fields or to learn more about upcoming East Knoxville programs, call William Anderson at 865-243-4968. During football season, the outfields are used for football practices, info: Melvin Tate at 865-384-4408.

John Crooks is director of communications for Emerald Youth Foundation.

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