A sports complex in East Petaluma that has languished on the sidelines for more than 20 years may actually get into the game soon.

The $23 million East Washington Park, which began as a $2.1 million public-private partnership concept in 1990, could see construction begin next spring on an abbreviated footprint.

"This is the greatest of our unmet needs," said Petaluma Assistant City Manager Scott Brodhun. "These are fields we need to get built. The recreation programs are outgrowing the capacity of the Parks Department to provide space."

City leaders last week approved a $210,000 contract for design and engineering work on a $6.7 million segment, which includes at least two — maybe three — artificial turf multi-use fields, lighting, irrigation, frontage street improvements, a gravel road and parking area and provisions for seating and fencing.

Partial funding became available with a recent influx of development fees and a $2 million grant from the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District that has a 2016 expiration date. Another $1 million is anticipated from donations or in-kind supplies and services, Brodhun said.

Recreation supporters have held out hopes the project would move forward. They point to a ballot measure last year for a parks tax that would have funneled $6.1 million to the complex. Although the measure failed to meet the two-thirds majority needed, about 63 percent voted for it, showing their desire for improved recreation facilities in town.

About half of phase one will be funded with available funding.

"We believe we can fund a project that's worth funding," said Larry Zimmer, the city's capital projects manager. "The question for us now is what will be and won't be included."

East Washington Park began as a proposal by a retired Berkeley firefighter and volleyball coach whose investors envisioned the Redwood Empire Sportsplex as a regional sports facility with six lighted softball fields, four sand volleyball pits, six batting cages, a playground, indoor basketball courts, 294 parking spaces and an 8,000-square-foot clubhouse.

The city owns the land, 26 acres off East Washington Street near the airport, and was exploring a revenue-sharing agreement with the private investors. But funding fell through and the plan died.

It was resurrected in 2000 and after various city boards signed off on airport safety, traffic and nighttime lighting, construction work began in Aug. 2003. By then the price tag had risen to $3.6 million, which included a restaurant.

But a year into it, after the area had been graded and some preliminary work had been done, financing collapsed again.

By 2006, the public-private partnership was dead and the city decided it would move ahead on its own to build a community sports complex on the land.

Little League teams, BMX bikers, soccer, lacrosse and football players urged the city to find the money to build what was now being called East Washington Park.

Estimates for its cost rose to $6 million by then, but the city didn't have much in its development funds because there hadn't been much growth and other projects had been halted because of a projected water shortage.

In 2007, the City Council approved the $23 million conceptual master plan that exists today, and in 2010 approved engineering plans for phase one, estimated to cost a total of $11 million.

Plans sat idle until last year, when the City Council approved a pared-down phase one of about $6.5 million in work in order to use the Open Space District grant before it expires.

"It's been in the hopper a long time," Brodhun said. "We are going to build what we can afford to build."

You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 762-7297 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com.