Family fun at SportsPark

15-acre facility is one of Columbia's best-kept secrets, some CA officials say


Nakessha Modeste stood behind the softball batting cage as Elijah, her 5-year-old son, swung at the yellow balls coming from the pitching machine.

"Swing!" Modeste shouted as Elijah gripped the bat and dug in against the incoming ball.

"There you go," Modeste said as Elijah clipped one ball, a grounder that struck the fence. Other at-bats weren't as successful - some left Elijah, rather than the ball, spinning.

Modeste, 28, and her son were part of a birthday party at the Columbia Association's SportsPark on a recent Sunday, among the thousands of local residents taking advantage of what some Columbia Association officials say is one of Columbia's best-kept secrets.

The more-than-15-acre facility, off Harper's Farm Road, was opened in 1998 at the cost of $2.8 million and includes a miniature golf course, batting cages, a playground, skateboard park and two baseball fields.

But because of its location, tucked behind Harper's Choice Village Center, some residents don't know about it.

"Because it's not on a main thoroughfare, they drive by and don't see it," said Rob Goldman, the association's vice president for sport and fitness. "It does require marketing and advertising for people to know it's there."

The SportsPark attracted 15,736 people in the fiscal year that ended in spring 2005, and, though the latest numbers are not tabulated, the expectation for the most recent year is about 16,000.

In its early days, the facility drew lower-than-expected attendance, prompting association officials to launch marketing campaigns that included sending fliers to baseball and softball teams and advertising the location of the facility and its features.

Over the years, the association has increasingly reached out to corporations and other groups seeking venues for large outings. On average, the SportsPark is host to about 15 corporate outings a year, at an average fee of $3,000, said Vince Delorenzo, the park's assistant general manager. Birthday parties have been another draw, Goldman said.

Before its construction in the mid-1990s, association officials debated constructing an outdoor ice skating rink, but the plan was dropped because of high maintenance costs.

About a year after the Sports- Park opened, a 10,000-square-foot skateboard park was added, and it was expanded to 15,000 square feet in 2004. The Skatepark was the association's brainchild to stop youths from skating at the lakefront, village centers and other public areas, officials have said.

"I was skeptical it could attract them from the area, but it did," Goldman said.

Though attendance has increased over the years, officials see room for improvement.

"I don't think we have taken full advantage of all of the land around the SportsPark," said Barbara L. Russell, board member for Oakland Mills. "It's some land behind the park, and I think we should do something with that."

Goldman sees increased awareness of the SportsPark as a key to its success.

"It's a wonderful family center that not a lot of Columbians know about," Goldman said.

On a recent day, the SportsPark bustled. Bill Eisenrauch of Ellicott City and John Kehoe of Harper's Choice coached their teenage daughters at the softball batting cages.

Eisenrauch frequently stops at the facility before summer softball games.

"The facility is good. ... It's good because we can get in a few hits just before a game," Eisenrauch said.

On the golf course, the line at the first hole grew as some parents coaxed their children to keep the ball onto the green and not pelt a passer-by. The pumps for the streambeds were not working, but that appeared not to bother patrons.

After growing impatient with the line, Larry and Mary Russo of Harper's Choice decided to climb the short terrain of rocks and bushes to the unoccupied 13th hole.

"We decided not to use our skateboard today," Larry Russo joked. "We've come here a few times, and it's good because I can get in some miniature golf and relax ... the loser has to pay for the ice cream."

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