tampabay.com

Packed park can be a real downer

By MARLENE SOKOL, Carrollwood Bureau Chief
Published October 12, 2007


A friend in Westchase has a daughter in the neighborhood cheerleading program. Or you could call it that. They practice at Ed Radice Park, a 150-acre complex clear out in Keystone.

The park is named for a guy who headed up county recreation for many years. With restrooms, drinking fountains and more than a dozen lighted fields, Ed Radice is an afterhours destination for close to 4,000 athletes, including the soccer powerhouse Hillsborough County United.

This is good, right?

So what was up with the cheerleaders last week? "We need your voice," said an e-mail that went out to parents. "We need it to be loud and we need it to be POSITIVE."

Seems someone told the cheerleaders they could no longer practice in their Thursday night spot between the softball fields. Adult players were hitting balls and it was just too dangerous.

Change your practice from Thursday to Friday was one suggestion from park officials. Another was to move the cheerleaders and football players to another county park in Town 'N Country.

That won't do, the Westchase families said. Friday night is high school football. And the Town 'N Country park was too small, not to mention inconvenient for families traveling from as far north as Heritage Harbor.

"REMEMBER," said the e-mail. "We are all tax paying citizens and Ed Radice is a county-run facility, meaning it is OUR Park."

I spoke to John Brill of county parks and Ty Hawkins of the Westchase Colts this week. Both said the issue was resolved - for now. The cheerleaders have another practice spot in the complex.

"They don't have to drive 10 miles down the road," Brill said. The football players will leave by 7:45 p.m. on nights when softball games are scheduled at 8 p.m.

"Everyone has been ordered to be courteous, sensitive and professional," wrote county parks director Mark Thornton, adding that "my staff and our assigned deputy sheriff" would be there to make sure of it.

That's the arrangement for the duration of this season. Next season, there are no guarantees.

"Our fields are at capacity, and that affects a whole lot more than Westchase," Brill said. "It affects people all over the place where we're just maxed out. It's not just soccer and it's not just football. We have more than we can handle. People are practicing football in the outfield of our softball fields and soccer in places like that where they shouldn't even be playing soccer."

Who's to blame?

In the largest sense, we all are.

But I blame government. Not the parks and rec folks, who are doing their darnedest to mow the grass and kill the fire ants in a time of shrinking budgets. The blame lies with county planners and commissioners, who approved developments like Westchase without creating enough park space.

Someone was asleep on the job. Westchase got to sell lot after lot and market itself as a great place for families while consigning those families to drive, drive, drive for a simple game of ball.

It's the same in New Tampa, where every development came with a golf course until they realized golf courses were just money pits that would run up everybody's assessments. But sports fields? Send the suckers to Pasco.

Hawkins says it's not his fault that Westchase developers were so shortsighted, and no, it isn't. Nor is it the Cheval family's fault or the Heritage Harbor family's fault. It is what it is.

The result is a delicate balance between softball and baseball, football and soccer, even soccer and soccer, with Westchase's organization running up against the demands of Hillsborough United. About 1,000 adults are in the softball program, creating even more strain, and some unsavory language. The park is for kids, right? But adults pay taxes, too.

It would be great if the county could just build more parks, but we all know better. Land is scarce now. It's expensive. And, as evidenced by the swift defeat of Jim Norman's Championship Park, it's not good politics.

In opening Ed Radice, the county created one-stop shopping for families with kids in multiple sports. Lots of luck if they try to scatter these programs around.

I told Hawkins I would try not to burn bridges for him with this column. Trust me, that is not my intent. It's just sad, having lived here when Westchase was coming out of the ground, to see the fruits of developer greed and an absence of oversight.

Fast facts

Who uses Ed Radice Park?

These are the athletes registered to play and practice at Ed Radice Park. Numbers do not include parents, coaches or onetime tournament players.

Baseball:500

Adult softball: 1,000

Soccer: 2,000

Football and cheerleading: 300

Source: Hillsborough County Department of Parks, Recreation and Conservation