Donor offers upgrade for field

Businessman proposes to buy artificial turf for Columbia park

Cost would be almost $500,000

Dancel hopes Cedar Lane will get surface by May

March 21, 2004|By Lowell Sunderland | Lowell Sunderland,SUN STAFF

A Columbia business executive is offering to pay to resurface one of Howard County's busiest playing fields with high-tech synthetic turf, a gift that would cost him nearly $500,000.

If Bernie Dancel's offer is accepted by the Department of Recreation and Parks, his donation would constitute the second-largest gift the agency has ever received, said Gary J. Arthur, the department's director.

Dancel, founder and chief executive of the Columbia-based Ascend One Corp., corporate parent of several businesses that provide services in the financial counseling arena, wants to install artificial turf on one multipurpose field in Columbia's Cedar Lane Park that is used by football, soccer and lacrosse teams. Soccer and lacrosse play is by both youth and adult teams. He hopes to see the turf installed and in use by the end of May.

"There's a significant shortage of playing fields in the county," Dancel said, "and like the others, the ones at Cedar Lane are used so heavily, by so many groups, that it's impossible for rec and parks to maintain them to the level that is desirable.

"So the proposal I've made was to try to make existing parks more efficient, and with the advances in technology for synthetic turf, it just makes sense to do that."

Dancel has experienced field shortages and poor playing conditions as a youth football coach and financial backer, initially with the former Columbia Bulldogs and last year with the newly formed Columbia Ravens.

Dancel also pressed early last year to learn what had happened to nearly $90,000 he had arranged for the Bulldogs' support. That inquiry led to last month's guilty pleas by a former president and the group's longtime treasurer to theft charges in Howard County Circuit Court.

The Columbia Ravens played last fall at Cedar Lane, and Arthur said arrangements could continue that relationship. But Dancel said the new field "will be open for all to use." The Ravens' age-group teams begin practice in late summer and play into November.

Synthetic turf developed in recent years - thin, plastic blades of grass embedded in millions of minute rubber pellets, all from recycled material - is a hot commodity for sports facilities and stadiums throughout the nation, as well as in Howard County.

Dozens of colleges and professional teams, including the Baltimore Ravens, have shifted from real grass to bladed artificial turf in recent years, and prices have plummeted in the past two years.

The county rec department is proposing to install three synthetic surfaces in the coming fiscal year: two at the developing Western Regional Park in Glenwood and one at Rockburn Branch Park in Elkridge. The Soccer Association of Columbia-Howard County is installing three artificial fields at its new Covenant Park, an eight-field, soccer-only complex on Centennial Lane that will be in use by the end of spring.

The synthetic turf is considered player-friendly in terms of safety, requires little maintenance, is drought-impervious, does not require irrigation or mowing, and can be played on in rain and snow without significant damage. Thus, it can be used more heavily than real-grass fields. All of the fields proposed for the county have or would have lights, allowing nighttime play, as well.

Dancel and Arthur said legal details of the synthetic turf proposal for Cedar Lane Park are still being worked out, but each said in separate interviews that it seems likely to be accepted by county government. The field would be maintained and owned by the county, Arthur said, but the expense of building it would be Dancel's.

"He asked us to get four bids, and we've done that," said Arthur. "We're hoping to get it done quickly."

Dancel said he prefers a surface called FieldTurf, made by one of the earliest manufacturers of synthetic turf. A heavily used public football and soccer field in Cumberland was an early FieldTurf project. The University of Maryland's football field also is FieldTurf.

Dancel said he had proposed putting up the money for Cedar Lane Park if the county could arrange to do likewise at another park, which since has been designated as Rockburn.

"Doing two parks at the same time would accelerate the benefits to the community and help with the costs," Dancel said. "But we will do it at Cedar Lane, regardless of what happens."

Money for the rec department's three proposed fields has yet to be allotted, but it is part of the county's planned construction budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Capital expenditures will need County Council approval this spring.

The money for resurfacing the Cedar Lane field, which in the early 1990s was home to the Maryland Bays professional soccer team, would come from his family's charitable foundation, Dancel said. The Dancel Foundation, he said, has as its objective assisting organizations and projects that help children. Other grants, he said, have gone into educational projects.

The only gift to the rec department that exceeds Dancel's is the $1.8 million involved in the 1997 transfer of the 630-acre Middle Patuxent Environmental Area from Columbia's developer to rec and parks ownership. The agency paid the money, which was returned to a departmental trust fund for the acreage.

This month, Dancel's company announced a 10-year commitment to create a $5 million endowment for the Ascend One Fund for Financial Literacy, with an initial grant of $500,000. That program, said a corporate news release, will focus on educational programs from elementary school to college that improve students' understanding of financial matters.

A company news release said that last year, "Ascend One companies and employees contributed more than $200,000 to area charities and community service initiatives."

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