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Creativity may win the day for fields plan

Published October 7, 2007


The plan to build four youth sports fields on school district property at Keystone and East Lake roads appeared to be dead late last month after county commissioners learned the cost of the project: at least $7.3-million. Commissioners said almost $2-million per field was unacceptable.

But hold on, there may be a comeback.

At last week's County Commission meeting, the first with interim County Administrator Fred Marquis, Commissioner Susan Latvala said the county might be able to get a better price. She said she had met with contractors who felt the job could be done for much less.

The contractors had told her that with the downturn in construction, "there are people out there who would jump on it just to keep their crews busy," she said.

The commission directed Marquis to check it out and report back.

Whether Latvala correctly presented the required scope of work to those contractors is not known. The job involves more than just clearing the vacant property and constructing fields. Concessions, restrooms, lighting, parking and a landscape buffer from nearby residences were part of the plan. However, the wild card is how much the county will have to spend to work around, or fill in and then mitigate, wetlands on the school district land.

After learning about the $7.3-million price tag at their Sept. 25 meeting, commissioners had directed the county staff to look at other sites in North Pinellas that might work for construction of sports fields. The commission's direction to Marquis at its Oct. 2 meeting to seek a better construction price on the Keystone/East Lake property adds another possible alternative.

There are few pieces of vacant land that are of sufficient size to build a field complex and parking in North Pinellas. Several commissioners have suggested the county may have to abandon hope of building one complex and instead build a field here and there, even though that is less convenient for parents and coaches.

If Latvala's conversations with contractors result in a less expensive sports complex on the Keystone/East Lake Road property, she may redeem herself just a bit in the view of her critics. Latvala was getting a new wave of criticisms after asking if any other commissioners would join her in reconsidering a 38-acre pine forest parcel inside Brooker Creek Preserve as a location for the sports fields.

It is astonishing that a person with Latvala's experience could be that politically tone deaf. The proposal to develop ball fields and parking lots within the official boundary of the Brooker Creek Preserve was slammed by environmental groups and the public, and rightly so. The proposal violated the Brooker Creek Preserve Management Plan and the county's promise to focus on research, preservation and limited passive recreation in the 8,300-acre preserve. There is no question that Pinellas residents value the preserve and want to see it protected.

Perhaps Latvala is the only commissioner who doesn't get it. No other commissioner was willing to join her in reconsidering the preserve for the ball field project.

Several commissioners did some creative thinking about ways around the problem. They discussed exploring new funding options within county government, such as bonding and selling naming rights, seeking private grants or donations, building less expensive temporary fields on the Keystone site, taking another look at possible sites in Tarpon Springs and Oldsmar, and parceling out fields around the county on smaller sites.

Building sports fields to serve the county's increasingly youthful population is difficult and expensive now, and will be even more so in the future. Money is tight, and likely to get tighter. Commissioners and county staff are right to use their best creative thinking and explore every possibility, but not abandon their commitment to provide recreation for county residents.

[Last modified October 6, 2007, 20:13:33]

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