College, club set new goal to upgrade athletic fields

Howard At Play

March 24, 2002

HOWARD COMMUNITY College's few athletic fields are, to use President Mary Ellen Duncan's words, "mowed-down weeds" that nevertheless still serve young athletes in this county.

But if an idea reintroduced to the college's trustees Wednesday night is approved this spring, that status could change quickly. And it would benefit both the college's athletic program and the Soccer Association of Columbia/Howard County.

Association and college officials have been talking in recent weeks about a multiyear partnership that both agree would be mutually beneficial. If this sounds familiar, it should. Eight years ago, a larger, 10-year plan - for seven fields, including a high school-size stadium, and more college expense - fizzled after getting trustee approval.

The college has different trustees now and a different president. The soccer association, a 4,000-player club then, has grown by 50 percent and has a better-defined vision of what its sizable membership is likely to become and can afford. Both sides better understand the deteriorating playing-field situation at county schools and parks.

As Duncan explained the talks to the college's six trustees last week, the association would agree contractually to upgrade at its expense and then share, over 15 years, maintenance of at least three fields on the west Columbia campus. In exchange, the club would get exclusive use when those fields were not being used by college soccer and lacrosse teams.

The association - with nearly 6,000 players the largest county youth sports organization and one of Maryland's largest - has used the fields for years. So have other soccer clubs, but none has spent anything on maintenance, not to mention upgrades.

David Procida, who became the association's president this year, estimated the cost to the club over 15 years to be "between $250,000 and $300,000."

That would be in addition to the club's new, 10-field Covenant Park, north of Columbia on Centennial Lane. Paperwork for the field complex is progressing as expected with construction possibly starting in June, Procida said.

At the college, he said, the club envisions three fields to be regraded and topped, then seeded with grass to specifications most suitable for quality soccer, complete with a new irrigation system.

A second phase would be more in the college's purview, Procida said. It could involve installing bleachers for at least one field, relocating the school's track closer to Hickory Ridge Road, and adding structures for concessions, restrooms and maintenance equipment.

"Those fields have been sitting out there for many years without attention," Duncan said, "and I don't think we're going to get any help soon from the county or the state to do anything with them. Our trustees have favored us finding partnerships within the community that we serve to do a lot of things at the college. ... We can't rely on tax money to get all the things we need."

Yet sports and "really nice, college-level fields" continue to be an important part of the college's master plan - "it's still part of the vision we're following," she said.

The college has the largest number of "traditional age" students in its history, and students like sports, Duncan said.

"I don't think we'll get what Catonsville and Essex have," she continued, referring to two Baltimore County community colleges with quality sports facilities. "But we should be at least as good as what the public schools have. We need improved facilities ... and this is a good way to go about it."

Duncan said the partnership concept also addresses "a safety issue," because the fields' rough condition could cause injuries.

Trustees will get the proposed contract next month and likely will vote on it no later than June, said Chairman Roger Caplan.

"I'm cautiously optimistic about it," he said, noting that he and fellow trustees want to see the deal in writing as part of normal business procedure. "It really can be one of those win-win situations."

Anniversary party

The nearing baseball season will be the 50th for the Howard County Youth Program - the real anniversary, contrary to what a couple of club members who should have known better convinced us about this time last year.

Technically, that birthday will occur in late June, which is when the first Ellicott City Little League game was played in 1952. That league was the seed from which has grown HCYP, which operates extensive baseball, softball, basketball and volleyball programs in greater Ellicott City.

HCYP is planning a golden anniversary observance that should be fun, as well as a fund-raiser. That's a two-course golf tournament May 28 with slots for 240 former HCYP players, coaches, volunteers or senior leaders. Afterward, participants, families and friends will gather in Centennial Park for a luncheon. Cost for the day: $100. Call John Hein, 410-465-8069, for details.

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

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