GERMANTOWN -- Here in Montgomery County, a children's game applauded for its simplicity has become a multimillion-dollar, corporately sponsored controversy.
And that's just on paper.
The Maryland Soccer Foundation wants to turn a chunk of a county park in Germantown into a "Soccerplex" of 21 outdoor fields, an outdoor championship field with bleacher seating for 3,200 and an indoor arena with several fields.
The price: $19.8 million.
Officials of the nonprofit group say they will pay for more than half the cost of the project through user fees and corporate donations. Even so, the offer has raised suspicions about motive, political payoffs and privilege on one side and prompted exasperation on the other.
"How does a recreational park for common use become the equivalent in some people's minds of a landfill or Dickerson [incinerator]? Only in Montgomery County," says County Councilman Steven Silverman.
Silverman and two other council members will sort through the proposal during the next few weeks to craft a deal.
Montgomery shares the problem of other soccer-crazed communities that cannot keep up with the demand for fields. The county has 22,500 soccer-playing youngsters -- half of the state's total by some estimates -- and just 66 soccer and football fields.
Montgomery Soccer Inc., the county's largest club with 15,000 players, says it had to turn away 550 boys and girls during registration in the fall.
The idea of a Soccerplex took hold in fall 1997, when parents questioned why Maryland's wealthiest county didn't have enough fields.
The soccer foundation has the financial backing of John Hendricks, president and chief executive office of Discovery Communications Inc., who donated $1 million of his money and $1 million of his company's money for the naming rights to the arena.
The foundation has the support of Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who has committed $3 million in state money, and County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, who has pledged $5.8 million in funding.
Supporters say the offer from Hendricks and his foundation is the perfect opportunity for Montgomery County to consummate a public-private partnership for the good of the children.
Not everyone sees it that way.
Residents near the park fear the traffic and noise a large athletic complex could bring. Parents of children who play other sports complain the county is ignoring the need for other types of athletic facilities.
Running beneath the surface are residents' suspicions that concerns will be steamrollered by county officials smitten with the promise of free money from a man who wants playgrounds built, but not near his home.
Contributions, tax breaks
They note that Hendricks gave $20,000 to the Glendening campaign in 1997 and 1998, and gave Duncan $500 in the last election. Hendricks received $10 million in tax incentives from the county so that Discovery Communications would stay in Montgomery and build a larger headquarters in Silver Spring.
"For the past 20 years, the growing Hispanic community has been clamoring for soccer fields and nothing has happened," notes Jorge Ribas of the Montgomery County Civic Federation. "Yet, when one man takes his dream to the governor and county executive, suddenly hundreds of acres of parkland are available, and park staff and taxpayers' dollars are unconditionally obligated."
Duncan spokesman David Weaver says no connection exists between campaign contributions, tax breaks and the Soccerplex.
A spokeswoman for Hendricks says Hendricks has been deeply hurt by personal attacks and suspicions of his motives.
"He will get nothing out of this except seeing kids enjoying soccer," says Trisha Heffelfinger. "His own kids will never use it. By the time it's built, they'll be too old."
Germantown, once largely farmland, has exploded into a community of townhouses and new developments. The 68,000-resident city has one of the lowest concentrations of soccer-playing youngsters in Montgomery, according to county statistics.
"Our kids play baseball. Our kids play football," says Laura Creedon. "Those soccer kids come from Bethesda and Potomac. They are seizing our park."
Opponents say if Hendricks wants to build soccer fields, let him do so in his Potomac neighborhood, which has one of the highest concentrations of players.
`Thinking outside the box'
Silverman says he understands the suspicions generated when government works with a private group, especially one with a lot of money and influence.
But, he says, those feelings can be overcome by monitoring all phases of construction and moving quickly to build other elements in the park, such as a swim center, tennis courts and trails.
The result, Silverman believes, will be a much larger statement by the county to the private sector.
"Everyone talks about thinking outside the box on projects. Well, this is one of them," he says. "If the next swim center becomes the Lockheed Martin Aquatic Center, so be it."
Pub Date: 3/12/99