Dept. of Recreation, Parks and a dirt-cheap approach

PLAYING AROUND

Howard At Play

October 28, 2001|By LOWELL E. SUNDERLAND

TALK ABOUT a dirt-cheap approach to recreation: The county's Department of Recreation and Parks has taken to considering conversion of those two long-problematic soccer-football-lacrosse fields at Rockburn Branch Park to dirt surfaces.

Seriously. Not just more bad grass getting worse, plus endless pebbles. That's been the unsolvable problem on those lighted fields off Landing Road in Ilchester for years. They're talking level dirt - no grass, not even in the corners, as is the status this month. Dirt. Like they have in poor parts of some cities.

That's a 180-degree swing. And it's not right.

Just a year ago, the buzz was positive. It was about finally being able to top those heavily used, three-season fields with a type of synthetic turf that is taking pro and major-college stadiums to new, safer, more durable levels. Even players don't mind playing on the kind of artificial grass they were planning.

But the economy was souring, and the $1.3 million the department had banked over four years - four years - through higher fees got sidelined by County Executive James N. Robey for something else, although "something" has yet to be defined.

Maybe shelving that money would be temporary, we heard a few months back. It's contingency planning. Just doing our share to help a weakening county government budget picture.

That was before Sept. 11's events compounded a drift toward recession, making the planning of public budgets tantamount to swimming in mud.

These days, Rec and Parks Director Gary J. Arthur is fretting not only about the prospect of dirt fields but having to use some of that $1.3 million just to keep his department afloat financially. Like other county agency administrators, he is being asked to look at cutting the money in his budget that comes from all local taxpayers - about $8.7 million in Arthur's unit - by as much as 10 percent.

Which is why that $1.3 million, which is very real, albeit in escrow, is unavailable now for nice fields used by thousands and why Arthur and his department heads are kicking around the idea of, well, maybe it would be better, as well as cheaper, to have dirt fields. Arthur may have no other choice but to reallocate that money just to continue programs that taxpayers have come to expect.

Rec and Parks already must raise most of its annual budget - about $20 million this fiscal year, including that $8.3 million portion from the taxpayer-provided General Fund - through fees. Quite possibly, it's going to have to generate even more. And this is a department, say some knowledgeable in public recreation, that always has been badly under-funded by taxpayers and their political leaders.

Are you paying attention, all of you people who use Rec and Parks facilities for any reason, amateur sports being a significant proportion but not the only users? Walkers? Card players? Seniors? Horseback riders? Would-be cooks, or artists? Day-trippers? Erstwhile dancers, tumblers, climbers?

It's time to start paying close attention to county budgets, dry as the subject might seem. It's time to get involved by making your views and priorities known to the county executive, to your County Council member, to the school board. Because it's clear that attitudes in too much of "official" Ellicott City are not especially friendly toward playing.

Artificial turf at Rockburn would be a first in Central Maryland and a rarity among rec-department-maintained fields, anywhere.

But, gee whiz, we can't have one of America's most affluent counties daring to be a trend-setter, now, can we? Which is what would happen by installing durable, maybe in the long run cheaper, playing surfaces that could be used for more hours and longer seasons.

Maybe a sadder thing here is this: Rockburn's fields aren't the only awful, nearly grassless surfaces in this county for athletes, although it hasn't always been so.

Fields at Centennial and Cedar Lane parks, also too heavily booked out of necessity for soccer and lacrosse to meet needs of a growing population may be headed along the same road. Rec and Parks can't keep grass on them, either.(And notice, this column hasn't even mentioned the far-more numerous fields owned by the county school system that are in need of decent surfaces; that's a different budget and administration.)

Can't anyone in amateur sports - and maybe, more broadly, general recreation here - hear the politicians when it comes to facilities for you and your programs? They never say it in so many words, but here's the drift: "Let them have dirt."

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

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