Palm Coast Little League teams practicing or playing at the county fairgrounds? County teams using city fields at the Indian Trails Sports Complex or elsewhere? City crews actually helping county crews manicure their greens? You’ve not heard of that sort of cross-pollination in the past decade, when the two governments were dominated by executives inclined to run public fields like gang turf.
That Jets-and-Sharks era appears to be over. Palm Coast and county governments are drafting an agreement that would significantly relax the proprietary lock on each sides’ fields, instead prioretizing public need, with Palm Coast Little League the vanguard beneficiary.
Palm Coast City Manager Matt Morton and Lauren Johnson, the city’s interim parks manager, last week met with County Administrator Jerry Cameron and Heidi Petito, the facilities manager, along with two little league board members, where they agreed on the outline of an agreement that would change the way the two governments have been (or have not been) engaging each other over parks issues while opening the county fairgrounds’ eight fields (four baseball, four softball) to Palm Coast Little League.
The city is also developing a “master calendar” that would keep track of all activities on all fields to better manage what may take place where and allow organizations to see how they fit in. That master calendar was discussed at a January meeting of the Palm Coast City Council, but the plan’s first draft just made it to Morton’s desk this week. It’s part of a reevaluation of the city’s assets and an attempt to stretch those assets further before having to take the var more costly step of adding fields–likely an unfeasible option at the moment, given constraints on budgets.
“We’re going to do an assessment of all of our fields, how they’re utilized, how often they’re utilized,” Mayor Milissa Holland said. “We’re going to come up with a big picture and then we’re going to come up with a strategic plan on how to tackle those fields.” It’s not the first time the mayor or her predecessor have spoken similar words, but on previous occasions the words hinged more on hope than action, with the city’s own administration as if fencing off innovative ways of letting public organizations benefit from their public fields. The city has added fields, has always taken huge pride in maintaining them to high standards fit for Better Homes and Gardens centerfolds and more recently lit additional fields at the Indian Trails complex for more than half a million dollars. But the administration’s accommodations of organizations like Little League had stalled as it favored out-of-town tournaments and a rigid management of the fields.
“I’m also very encouraged by the better bandwidth and communication from our parks and communication department and our city manager,” City Council member Nick Klufas said Tuesday evening, speaking–as he usually does–in digitized lingo of his generation and referring more specifically to the change at the city’s parks and recreation department, where Lauren Johnson was appointed interim director last month. “It’s been 180-degree turn over the last several months, and more specifically this last month. So thank you very much to everyone here, and thank you to our staff making us better.”
Morton had detailed what the city had been up to in past days, referring to “several meetings” with little league representatives and the county. “We did get some access to practice fields for both softball and baseball,” Morton said. “We’re putting together a memorandum of understanding with the county to help on some joint maintenance so those fields are in good quality shape and are as playable as possible. We’ve also worked on trying to identify–and those conversations are ongoing–some playability enhancements for our little league and softball, including maybe some fencing removal, some reorientation of the fields at Indian Trails and some rescheduling.”
“It was a very productive meeting,” Petito said, speaking of the agreement being developed between the county and the city. “It would be a mutual benefit to the county and to the city, where we would make available to them our sportsfield, and they would make available to us their sportsfields,” The focus for now is on softball and baseball, but with attention to broader aims. ““At the end of the day the fields are there for the public to use and enjoy.”
Morton visited the fields last week with staffers to get a sense of what assets there are and what can be done with them to increase playability and address overflow parking. “We’re in the process of sharing that with little league and softball to see what provisions of that we can take action on immediately, figure out what the best course of actions are and of course bring some of the higher level items back to council for discussion and review,” Morton said.
Higher level items may eventually include the city’s long-term needs for expansion, needs Holland wants to address. “We are a growing city. There’s no doubt that we’re going to continue to grow. There’s no doubt that we need to invest in the next generation,” she said. “we need to also do everything in our power to ensure that we have enough capacity to make it successful. So we’re going to do everything we can moving forward. I agree with you, communication needs to improve, it needs to be better, it’s not been where it should be, and I’m looking forward–Matt and I have discussed this at length–to have not only those regular conversations, but really coming up with a very comprehensive approach and a plan moving forward.”
So by the time little league officials spoke to the council Tuesday, at least some of the work they wanted done was being done, with the promise of more ahead. But it was an opportunity for the little league representatives to showcase the growth of their programs (they’re bumping up registration costs for the first time in 10 years) despite various struggles along the way, not least with the city administration in recent years.
Palm Coast was established in 2000, when Palm Coast became a city, with two teams that played at Holland Park. In 2005 the organization had grown to 12 teams and expanded to Indian Trails, building a 2,500 square foot meeting and storage facility there at no cost to the city. Palm Coast Little League now registers some 600 children in spring, 400 in fall.
“I would say up ‘till 2015 our communications with the city were ongoing quarterly, and the council was kept well informed,” Fred Lewers, a little league board member, told the council. “Since then, it’s been poor at best. You the council need to make sure you are well informed. Although I must say during the last month or so I am seeing some of the communication returning under the new city manager.” He said the focus on out-of-town tournaments is understandable but “certainly does not compare with the parents of our children who are here 24/7, adding to the city’s treasury.”
William Warren, a local resident for 18 years, the parent and grandparent of five and the vice president of Palm Coast Little League’s softball operations, described a program “often referred to as the red-headed stepchild of Palm Coast Little League, low turnout, high turnover.” The first year of the program ended with all three all-star teams “soundly beaten,” and the program ridiculed. The last two years, he said, he’s rebuilt the program “in the best interest of the league,” recruiting, improving skills, and sending a team to the state tournament last year. This year, two teams advanced. But there’s been an element of thanklessness around it all.
“We do all this, play games, practice, host out of town teams, on one field. One field for 150 girls,” Warren said. “This season we played two games a night during the week and played from 9 a.m., often till 8 p.m. on Saturdays, to get our games in. Practice often happens before the season starts as we have no open time on the fields. Weekdays are often played till 9 or 9:30, the eight games played, so we have 10 year olds, 11 year olds and 12 year olds playing till 9:30 on a school night. The high school girls usually end it before that. At 100 girls the field is already at maximum capacity. At 150 girls, we are well over what we can play. In a world where we often see girls stop playing sports at the age of 12, I’m keeping them interested in playing. I ask that you help me give them some place to play, help us grow a program that’s growing.”
Practicing at the county fairgrounds, Lewers said, “would be a tremendous help” during the season, when there’s simply been no practice room for the girls.
“We see what’s on the horizon and we’re going to continue to grow,” Peter Schoembs, president of the Palm Coast Little League board, said. “We’re bursting at the seams right now at Indian Trails due to the lack of fields. This has been a topic of conversation for the past few years and a lot of progress has been made over the past few weeks between little league and the city of Palm Coast, and we believe it’s going to lead to an even stronger partnership between the two of us.” Schoembs told the council that Palm Coast Little League’s fields are admired by all those who come into town to play, and that the credit should go to the city. He said opening the fairgorunds to little league “is a fantastic first step, but really it’s a temporary step.”