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Groups scavenge for place to play

More and more children want to sign up to play sports, but the county has a shortage of room for the games and money to make changes.

By SAUNDRA AMRHEIN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 28, 2002


John Albert got tired of watching his children press their faces against the car window as they passed football fields.

Daddy, why can't I play?

Daddy, why can't I be a cheerleader?

There was no room for them on the team or field, that's why. His sons were stuck with sandlot football; his daughter spent hours riding her bike through the neighborhood.

So the New Port Richey man started hauling his children 10 miles south to Tarpon Springs, where there was room for more football players and cheerleaders. That was until last year, when word spread that teams were combining and spots would be reduced. Locals would get dibs.

"I started thinking, "What's going to happen to all these kids from New Port Richey?' " Albert said.

Albert rounded up other parents late last year. They met at local restaurants.

Let's start a new league, he suggested: the West Pasco Pop Warner Youth Football and Cheerleader club.

Their first registration drive in January netted 70 children.

Clearly, there wasn't a lack of interest. But there was one big thing missing: a place to play.

Albert quickly stumbled onto an ongoing and worsening problem facing all of Pasco County. Despite the approval of new parks impact fees in January, the county is unprepared to buy or build sufficient park space for a booming young population any time soon.

The results, demonstrated last week with Albert's plea to the county for use of Aloha Park, are that parents scavenge for field space; fights break out between community groups over parkland; and adults shuttle children across the county to overcrowded programs that squeeze them in.

"We didn't understand," Albert said. "All we are is a group of parents. We had no idea how difficult it was going to be in Pasco County to find a playing field."

Demand overwhelms county

In his spare time between working two jobs, Albert started driving around in January to ask local governments, schools and churches for fields.

"At first we were getting doors slammed in our face," he said.

The county offered to let the Pop Warner group use Aloha Park on Darlington for free, an agreement the County Commission approved last week.

But that's not the end of Albert's problems. The group faces $65,000 in startup costs for goalposts, scoreboards, uniforms and stands.

"We're looking at parents bringing out lawn chairs," he said. "It's going to be a tight squeeze. But don't get me wrong. It's workable. We're not choosy."

Jim Slaughter, county parks director, said community youth leagues bombard him with demands.

That's especially true now that the school district recently started requiring sports groups to pay up to $500 each time they use its fields and gymnasiums.

And Land O'Lakes soccer teams are getting squeezed out as the school district has decided to build a school where the players have practiced.

Then there's the Pop Warner group, which started signing kids up before they had places to play.

"So now they are coming in demanding the county give them land," Slaughter said.

The county has some money set aside for a down payment on land for a park in Wesley Chapel. But sometimes wrestling land away from owners and developers is a problem.

"They are looking for a bigger payday," Slaughter said. But as time goes by, land becomes more expensive.

And money remains a problem.

The County Commission passed a parks and recreation impact fee in January that charges $892 on new single-family homes. The fees should bring in $20-million over 10 years. That leaves a $20-million shortfall to give the county what it needs to buy parkland.

In the past year, the County Commission has decided against two ways of raising funds that would have helped parks: a special taxing district and a sales tax increase of 1 cent on the dollar.

As for the impact fees, they will take years to trickle in and build up enough to buy anything, Slaughter said. And even then, impact fees can be used only to buy land and build facilities, not for operational expenses that could run in the millions of dollars. The impact fees also can't be spent to address existing problems, such as the current shortage of parks in Wesley Chapel and Trinity.

"Wesley Chapel has a screaming need for a park," Slaughter said. "The recreation areas are bursting at the seams. One of the reasons we identified Wesley Chapel and Trinity as most important park sites is because their people are overwhelming the Land O'Lakes recreation centers."

Shortage strains school property

For now, Pop Warner has asked the county to push players with the Pasco Police Athletic League off their fields, Slaughter said.

"It kind of pits members of the community against each other," Slaughter said.

It also has been pitting them against the school district. Having nowhere else to go, youth athletic groups turn to the schools to use their gyms and fields.

Recently, the school district began charging up to $500 an event to private clubs to use facilities.

"It is not the role of the school district to provide recreational opportunities for the community at large," said Bob Dorn, the administrator who oversees middle and high schools. "We want to try to help one group wanting to use the gym one night a week. But 10 groups wanting to get three nights of the week each? Where do you draw the line?"

The shortage in county recreation space causes a strain on school property.

At certain football fields, high schools, middle schools and community leagues all take turns digging up the grass. Meanwhile, the marching bands must practice in the parking lots.

"The issue is how many times do you put teams in the stadium to play before you don't have any more grass," Dorn said.

Also, the district announced recently it will build its newest elementary school on Parkway Boulevard across from Pine View Middle School in Land O'Lakes.

That means 700 soccer players will have to leave the Pine View practice fields the league has used for about 15 years.

Bill Lent, director of the North Bay Juniors Volleyball League, scrambled last year to find new places for his members to play after the school started charging for use of its gymnasiums.

The group now uses Trinity's James P. Gills Family YMCA and Saint Leo University's facilities. But the confusion and resulting scheduling changes cut the group's numbers from 50 to 26 this year.

"It's hit us hard," Lent said.

Wesley Chapel Athletic Association teams also are playing on shaky ground.

The practice field for the 1,200 to 1,400 youth members could be sold out from under them at any point, said association vice president Harry Olsen. It's a piece of commercial property in Meadow Pointe.

"If it's sold tomorrow, we are in deep trouble," Olsen said.

For games, parents shuttle children to various schools in Wesley Chapel and New Tampa.

The association offers lacrosse, football, soccer, basketball, cheerleading and flag football.

But not baseball, because there are no facilities. Many families from Wesley Chapel sign up in Land O'Lakes.

"(There are) 900 kids playing ball over there; 200 of those are our kids," Olsen said.

Olsen says he favors any new taxes that would benefit the growing number of children moving into the county.

"Some things have been promised, and eventually these parks will come," Olsen said. "But unfortunately . . . it always seems like it's going to happen later than sooner."

-- Saundra Amrhein covers Pasco County government. She can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6244, or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6244. Her e-mail address is

amrhein@sptimes.com.

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