Making the case for new and improved fields

Amateur sports leaders hope joining together will add lobbying power

Howard At Play

January 27, 2002|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

Several amateur sports leaders in the county, concerned about spreading frustration over field conditions and other issues, are dusting off an old concept they hope can help make things better.

Instead of their groups working independently and rarely communicating with one another, as has been the case for at least a decade, they're talking up a coalition to lobby their cause.

"If we don't start trying to make people out there, the taxpayers, believe that our groups need fields, the way the county is growing, groups are going to have to start turning away kids, especially at the recreation level," said David Grabowski, a recent appointee to the Advisory Board of the Department of Recreation and Parks.

"And," said the two-time president of the Elkridge Youth Organization and lifelong Elkridge resident, "nobody [in youth sports] wants to see that."

Groups seeking fields operated by the Department of Recreation and Parks this spring are being asked to join shortly in forming a "sports council" to explore ways they can work effectively together.

Estimates of athletes of all ages in amateur sports in the county range as high as 40,000.

At least 16 county groups field youth teams in soccer, lacrosse, football, baseball, softball and rugby. Separate adult leagues in those sports, except rugby, also vie for county fields. Groups also compete for school gyms for volleyball, basketball, soccer and other cold-weather activities.

The coalition concept has been tried before in Howard County, said Grabowski, 47, who learned sports as a boy in leagues run by the Elkridge Youth Organization, which operates soccer, softball, baseball and basketball programs.

The first venture was in the late 1970s, but interest faded after a couple of years, said Al Harden, recreation division manager with the county Department of Recreation and Parks. Playing facilities were plentiful, groups were stable and the county was much smaller, he said. The idea resurfaced in 1990 but fizzled for lack of interest.

The idea's rebirth now, however, coincides with several conflicting trends.

Most sports groups - for children and adults - are growing, some rapidly; county-government budgets are under duress; and quality playing fields are in short supply.

Also, friction is increasing among many amateur sports leaders and school and county officials over the need for new fields and better maintenance at existing ones.

For at least three years, the Department of Recreation and Parks and the school system have had lean maintenance budgets, which prevented extensive upkeep of fields.

The three-season-a-year demand for playing time and two summers of drought have reduced the most heavily used segments of many recreation department fields to mostly dirt.

Reseeding has proven ineffective because of overuse and lack of time for the grass to grow.

In October, Recreation and Parks Director Gary J. Arthur said his department was thinking about converting two former grass fields used for soccer, lacrosse and flag football at Rockburn Branch Park into all-dirt surfaces for safety and maintenance reasons.

The department had saved about $1.3 million from fees over four years with the hope of installing synthetic turf there this year. But County Executive James N. Robey sidetracked that money to help offset anticipated revenue shortfalls this fiscal year.

Grabowski and Michael Milani, a sports coordinator for the recreation department designated to work with county sports groups, expect the sports council to function as a subcommittee of the department's Advisory Board.

The seven-member board, its members unpaid appointees, is not a policy-making body. It advises recreation department leaders, and through them, the county executive, on recreation-and-parks issues.

The board does not advise on public-school playing field policy. The school system owns and maintains more fields relied on by local sports groups than the recreation department. The school system also operates the gymnasiums.

Grabowski and Milani say the school system will be invited to participate.

"They've just got to be there," Grabowski said.

Appointed in October, Grabowski said his first weeks on the Advisory Committee convinced him that other county sports-group leaders need to be involved.

"I've seen [the Elkridge Youth Organization] grow in just six or seven years from about 300 kids to more than 1,200, and other groups are growing, as well. But we need to hear from everyone what are the wants and needs of those in the active sports," he said.

Recreation department administrators assigned Milani to help develop the council concept because of his work in forming Baseball and Softball Alliance leagues. For the first time, the leagues draw teams from of the six major youth organizations in those sports countywide.

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