It is as Palm Coast’s popular and well-maintained public sports fields are the victim of their own success: they’re so popular that there isn’t enough of them to accommodate growing and diverse demand. The Palm Coast City Council wants to change that.
Some time back Palm Coast’s Mad Dog Flag Football had the sort of issues other community sports organizations have had with the city’s sports fields: finding enough of them for its 150 participants to play on, and getting scheduled fairly, in the mix of tournaments and other commitments by the city’s Parks and Recreation division that runs the fields.
The conflicts were resolved. “I think it was much more about a lot more miscommunication rather than anything else,” Palm Coast Mayor Milissa Holland Holland said. “They just want to make sure they have access to fields, and lighting is an issue.”
But the issue, recurring with other organizations as it occasionally does, spurred a broader look at the city’s sports fields. “At one point we have to talk about capacity,” Holland said. “We know that Palm Coast Little League doesn’t have enough practice field, we know that because it’s growing every year.”
Tournaments that bring big-ticket organizations to town are fine–there were 38 such tournaments on the city’s fields last year, each bringing visitors who spend money locally, feeding into the sales tax that then gets recycled through local governments–but Holland the city council want to ensure that local organizations and individual residents who want to get together and play sports get to use and enjoy the fields–and that the city plans for expansion ahead.
“Right now, we’re limited,” Holland said. “All these different very valuable organizations that spend a lot of time with our kids, we need to have a conversation with them, much larger in scope,” to find out what their needs are.
That means adding lights to some fields to extend the field’s playtime. It means planning to add new fields in different parts of the city in the long run–a plan nowhere in sight at the moment. “We hear it every year. We’re a growing community, 90,000 residents, let’s really figure out if we have enough capacity to manage the different organizations” that want to use the fields, Holland said.
Between field use by so-called “sports tourism” (that is, big tournaments), Little League, flag football and soccer organizations, spring and fall seasons saw some 25,000 participants at the city’s fields, 2,750 of them local participants, all of whom use the fields repeatedly over the course of a season.
“The biggest issue we know is that tournament play, local play, always conflict,” Alex Boyer, the city’s parks and recreation director, said. “If we have a tournament, it displaces local play. When we have local play and there’s not a tournament, then we have no economic impact, which is fine. But we have to find the balance of when we can do local play versus when we can do tournament play.” The use of the fields isn’t the only factor. Fields have to have time to recover as well.
Those issues brought Boyer to the council last week with a presentation about what’s available now, how sports fields are managed, how scheduling is prioritized, and what’s not available, so the council can start planning for a an expansion of fields where necessary. And so council members have a better understanding of how the city’s Sports Alliance, created in 2013, is serving local residents and tournament play.
The Sports Alliance was created to spur tourism, using sports fields as a draw for regional tournaments that bring in athletes and their families who would stay in town for one, two or three nights. The city has criteria for organizations to become members of the alliance–civic, government, athletic organizations–so they’re not sidelined.
Members of the alliance don’t necessarily get preferential treatment. There are scheduling priorities. The city’s own uses have top priority, meaning that city events or events run through agreements between the city and other local governments, are first. Tournaments that have an economic impact (that is, that bring visitors who spend money locally) are next. Individual organizations or private groups are far down the list.
“As long as you’re a member you are given an equal opportunity,” Boyer said of the Sports Alliance, “and I’ll be the first one to say, there’s never been an organization that’s got everything they’ve asked for regardless of Sports Alliance, tournaments, that sort of thing. We do try to do our best to figure out what they’re asking for.”
The frequent worry is that the city and the county’s tourism office, both of whose administration have been pushing hard for tournaments, are edging out community organizations.
“They can’t come in last minute and kick our sports alliance people out, correct?” Holland asked about tournament organizers.
“Correct,” Boyer said. Those groups may book their time a year out. That’s a change from previous practice, when such an organization could ask for a field a month ahead of time, pre-empting more local organizations. When Indian Trails is used for a particular tournament booked well ahead of time, some local leagues are moved to Holland Park or Ralph Catre Park, which doesn’t make too many people happy. But once a local organization is slated for the use of a given field, it’s not moved.
“Communication is the key, it’s got to be constant,” Holland said, so alliance members are aware of what’s coming up and to what extent their activities may be accommodated without disruptions. “Tournaments are fantastic, we get the value, the economic impact, but I think the real value for having amenities like the Indian Trails Sports Complex and the other parks that we’ve invested in, have tremendous value to our community and our residents.”
Still, the city does not publish its master calendar for all organizations to see who’s slated where, when, though it maintains it. (Holland agreed that such a calendar should be public.)
Council member Jack Howell wondered if the city was “in the black” with its sports fields. But the fields aren’t run to make a profit, or to recoup all dollars expended,” Interim City Manager Beau Falgout said. Sports Alliance teams, for example don’t pay to use the fields. “When someone comes in and spends sales tax dollars, everyone gets a piece of the pie, so we get a piece, school board gets a piece, county gets a piece,” Boyer said. Sales tax dollars also pay for the technology in students’ hands–laptops and tablets.
The more pressing, growing issue is capacity. “We are boxed in right now with the capacity we have, we’re not building new fields, there’s no discussion to build new fields,” Holland said. “The problem is we just approved how many thousand units of development. Where are those families going to go to utilize fields.”
To council member Nick Klufas, there’s another problem: if a group of 20 young people in their 20s and 30s want to go play frisbee somewhere, when it’s not Daylight Saving Time (that is, when natural light is makes many more fields available than just lit ones), they have no place to go, because the fields are all occupied. (It cost $800,000 to add six 100-foot light banks at the Indian Trails Sports Complex last year, more than initially projected.) Klufas pointed to Wadsworth park, a county park on the approach to Flagler Beach, as an example where there appears to be more diverse and accommodating uses of space.
Is there room to grow? There are 11 acres at the city’s tennis center off Belle Terre, suggesting some capacity there. Indian Trails Sports Complex is landlocked by wetlands. Holland Park is landlocked. Palm Coast Park has designated 12 soccer fields on the west end of the city, but that’s yet to come. And just adding a field here and there may not be a solution.
“It can’t just be two fields here, two fields there,” Holland said, noting how a single mom chauffeuring her children to various activities should not be made to run all over town just so they can be involved. Logistics that reflects young families’ needs must be taken into account, Holland said, along with a better understanding of what organizations and individuals may be wanting to use fields but can’t. There are, for example, just four baseball fields and two softball fields within the entire city limits. One softball field and three baseball fields are lit.
“That’s ridiculous,” Holland said. “I don’t know what the solution is, but to do nothing is not beneficial.”