Putting politicians to the test on county recreation's future

PLAYING AROUND

Howard At Play

October 20, 2002|By LOWELL E. SUNDERLAND

IT MAY not be unique or a first, but in the context of recent Howard County elections, something the Soccer Association of Columbia/Howard County has planned for Thursday evening ranks as rare.

That is, dabbling in political water by inviting the candidates for county executive to a club social function - 13 days before a general election.

"We don't want this to be a political function," said SAC/HC President David Procida, who is hoping for a turnout of 200 or more adults from the club.

"It's not a political forum, and we're not going to endorse anyone. But we invited both candidates, and they say they're coming."

Thursday's event will be a mixer for SAC/HC coaches at Turf Valley Resort that the soccer club, the largest youth sports organization in the county and one of Maryland's largest, scheduled for the aftermath of its fourth golf outing to generate money for the Outreach Program.

That's a scholarship program that not only pays the way of kids who can't afford the club but is proactive - it seeks out minority, immigrant or other hard-to-reach kids who could benefit from learning a sport.

"We'll have about 120 golfers, but not all of our coaches play golf, and they're the ones who work with the Outreach kids, so we wanted a way to say thank you to them," Procida said. "They're the main reason for the mixer."

OK, so why the politicians? we asked Procida. The election that will decide whether Democrat James N. Robey gets another term or will be succeeded by Republican Steven H. Adler is so close. You're not doing this just to be good folks. You do have an agenda, right?

"Sure," Procida replied. "We would like to know what they think about our field complex," referring to Covenant Park, plans for which are in a holding pattern until after a Circuit Court administrative judge hears an appeal Dec. 17.

"We want to hear what they think the role of county government should be in developing private recreation," he continued.

"We'd like to hear more from them about what they think about public-private ventures, such as the one [improving several fields in exchange for exclusive rights to share them with college teams] we worked out with Howard Community College."

Note that term "public-private." Because Robey and Adler will say Thursday that state and, thus, county tax coffers for the foreseeable future are in extreme-lean mode.

Procida also understands that it can't hurt a whit to know politicians better or to expose them to some of the county's most dedicated volunteers, which is to say coaches of youth sports.

They're part of a large segment of the population that, frankly, politicians in this county have ignored for years because it has been so uninterested in the political process.

Recreation - fields, gyms, artificial turf for a couple of over-abused, rec-and-parks fields - hasn't even been mentioned in county campaigning so far, says Sun colleague Larry Carson, who reports on politics and county government.

To be fair here, Robey did appoint last year the first two representatives, ever, from the youth sports scene to the Advisory Board on Recreation and Parks.

But within weeks, he booted a chance to help far more effectively, it also must be said, by filling a school board vacancy with yet another say-nothing in terms of after-school use of school property.

So, if the candidates are not the focus, why would Robey or Adler devote dwindling campaign hours to a mixer for a bunch of jocks?

Neither candidate is dumb. Both get it, that a 6,000-player sports club capable of building a 10-field complex for something around $1 million represents clout and, potentially, votes. That's leverage that SAC/HC and other youth-sports groups here never, ever utilize.

Yet many in these groups wonder why the silence is deafening from county officialdom over deteriorating fields, lack of gym space, etc.

What SAC/HC is doing is both positive and needs emulation, it says here.

And as an aside, it also should be instructive for leaders of those clubs that a piece of campaign literature for Democrat C. Vernon Gray, the veteran County Councilman from Columbia who is seeking a state Senate seat, pictures him with a SAC/HC player.

The club, Procida said, had nothing to do with that. Youth clubs may not know their politicians, but Gray ... the man knows how to court voters.

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

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