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Laura Seitz, Deseret News
A kickoff event Friday signaled the start of a sports complex in Rose Park. Gold soccer balls were kicked into a net to symbolize anticipation.

SALT LAKE CITY — Ground was broken Friday on a sports complex near Rose Park that has been years in the making.

In place of golden shovels, city and county officials along with Real Salt Lake players and financial donors kicked ceremonial gold soccer balls into a net at the site to commemorate the occasion.

"(The complex) has always been, and always will be, all about community," said Salt Lake City public services director Rick Graham.

Friday marked the beginning of construction on the $22.8 million Phase 1 of the Salt Lake Regional Athletic Complex, due to be completed in fall 2011.

The 160-acre field near 1900 W. 2200 North will be home to 15 competition-quality soccer fields, one championship field and more than 600 trees.

Plans for the complex have been around for nearly a decade, with voters approving a $15 million bond in 2003 on condition private entities donated an additional $7.5 million. Dave Checketts, founder of Real Salt Lake, donated the funds in 2007, enabling the project to move forward.

In a speech at the groundbreaking, Checketts spoke of his motivation in donating.

"Giving our youth a place for their dreams to play out," Checketts said, "was all the inspiration we needed. ... It only took one visit for me to say, 'Mayor, we need to find a way to get this done.'"

The proposal faced opposition from individuals over environmental concerns, as the land for the complex borders the Jordan River and is considered open space. As recently as Wednesday, the Jordan River Restoration Network futilely petitioned a 3rd District judge to halt construction on the project, saying it will devastate migratory bird habitat and violate flood-plain rules.

Proponents Friday stressed that the design for the complex will enhance Jordan River restoration. The plan is to improve riparian and wetland plants and wildlife habitat while buffering the adjacent recreational area. All water used on site will be recaptured, Graham said, and reused, so none of it will end up in the river. The seven fields that are illuminated will use special lights that are designed to minimize impact to wildlife.

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Other residents raised concerns over the changes that have been made since the initial 2003 plans, which originally included baseball and softball fields. Those are expected to be built sometime in the future in an expansion phase.

Graham said the undertaking will free up community parks and fields that currently overrun neighborhoods every Saturday with athletes and parents.

"The soccer complex will change Salt Lake City," Graham said.

Checketts said that every professional soccer player starts out as a 6-year-old kid on a field near their home, and the complex will be great for children in the state.

"It will be a place of dreams," he said.

e-mail: mfarmer@desnews.com