Some questions needing answers drift over playing fields of Howard

PLAYING AROUND

April 22, 2001|By LOWELL SUNDERLAND

QUESTIONS ARE floating in with mid-April's bluster. It's speculative stuff, advertised as such - stuff you folks with financial expertise, governmental pragmatism, and/or entrepreneurial vision might want to nosh. For free, take 'em and run:

Given all the insistent, consistent crying for additional playing fields and, to a somewhat lesser extent, gyms that emanates from nearly all the county's amateur and youth sports organizations, might a solution include the private sector? Might there be money to be made right here in amid the Patapsco and Patuxents?

Another: Does it strike anyone else as odd that, given the yelling from farmers and other landowners in this county that, for example, Rec and Parks "shouldn't compete with private business," no one has proposed ball fields or a gym or two as a way to make money while doing community good?

Yet, if Columbia's privately owned Volleyball House can project revenue enough to double its indoor soccer capacity and increase by a third its pay-for-play volleyball courts in a new facility, then mightn't a similar opportunity exist for some farmer or vacant-land owner?

If private operators of four county gymnastics clubs can meet payrolls, rent for warehouse space, and continue in business for years, does that signify anything for privately backed facilities for other amateur sports?

If private owners can make a public golf course work in West Friendship, albeit with the help of acreage sold off for expensive housing, what might that indicate to entrepreneurs in other sports?

Of course, one county sports group is helping itself do what taxpayers (or politicians) don't seem to want to address vis-a-vis fields. The Soccer Association of Columbia/Howard County started charging extra nearly a decade ago, banking money toward the fast approaching day when it would build and operate its own field complex.

For all the criticism internally of how long the process dragged out, that decision looks prescient today.

And 'tis said that at least one other county sports group is talking internally - and in a probing way with government, as well - about a similar effort, although its leader questions the feasibility of such an project.

There's precedent for local groups operating their own fields, although profitability wasn't an objective back then - and neither was the cost of land the problem that it is today. But the Elkridge Youth Organization once had fields of its own- until Tropical Storm Agnes in June 1972 proved permanently that a flood plain is a less than ideal location.

This county has one hybrid arrangement, county government owning Kiwanis-Wallas Park in Ellicott City but leasing it long-term to the Howard County Youth Program for baseball and softball. The program maintains the diamonds, passing the cost along to families that use the facility. True, the county eats the expense of really pricey road and sewer work. Whatever, Wallas Park is one nice facility that, yes, the youth program's growth is outstripping.

Yet another question: Why not some publicly backed financial mechanism to underwrite or guarantee land acquisition for groups that want to build and maintain their own facilities?

How about this as an incentive - a property tax write-off for private landowners who set aside X acres for properly located and built playing fields?

Maybe you have some ideas to float, too? Or are these all, as a colleague once described stuff such as this, merely questions without answers?

A soccer note

It was nice to see Thori Staples Bryan, who grew up in Harford County but can be claimed as a Howard County athlete because of her play for SAC/HC travel teams as a teen-ager, on the Bay Area CyberRays on April 14 at Washington's RFK Stadium. Bryan played nicely against the Washington Freedom in the Women's United Soccer Association curtain-raiser.

She typifies a number of excellent women players who, because of the new professional league, can continue playing at a high level despite having slipped off the national team's rarefied bench. Her 56 caps as a national-team player helped make her the first player taken in WUSA's first "global" draft.

Bryan has another distinction, as well. She contributed a recipe - honest - to WUSA's official Web site, www.wusa.com. It's for Monkey Cake made from Bisquick biscuits, cinnamon, sugar, and butter. The player-recipe, it should be noted, is a feature not found on the Major League Soccer Web site. And no, we shan't guess what that means.

Call the writer at 410-332-6525 or address e-mail to lowell.sunderland@baltsun.com.

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