Accommodating a Whole New Ballgame
Wednesday, May 18, 2005
The geometry of recreation is shifting across the Washington suburbs, driven in part by the sporting preferences of a burgeoning immigrant population. As the rectangles of soccer gradually overtake baseball's diamonds, parks officials are even finding room for the large, grassy ovals of cricket.
Also fading away is the simplicity of a bygone era, when officials concentrated on providing facilities for a handful of mainstream sports: baseball and softball, basketball, golf, tennis, ice hockey, swimming. "As people's interests have splintered," said Nick Duray, a manager at the Fairfax County Park Authority, "we find ourselves needing to be involved in a lot more activities."
After Sheldon R. Ellis arrived from Jamaica in 1985, cricket games near the Mall helped him endure hard times in a new country. "You could talk your dialect, and folks would understand. You could tell your corny Caribbean jokes," he said.
Now a successful lawyer raising a family in Montgomery County, Ellis is still playing near the Mall and in a half-dozen other places in the region. And Montgomery, which had resisted entreaties from lovers of bowlers and wickets, is looking at a site in Burtonsville big enough and flat enough to make a fine cricket ground.
"We should be diversifying," said Mark S. Wallis, a senior park planner for Montgomery County. "We know the demographics are, so we know the park system's offerings need to change."
Recreation officials are concentrating with new vigor on discerning and providing what the people want. Fairfax opened a skate park last year, Montgomery is building its first, and both jurisdictions are planning more. The counties are struggling to find space and resources to accommodate indoor soccer and roller and field hockey.
Surveys show that people want more walking trails, more places to picnic, more areas in which to exercise their dogs.
In Montgomery, the focus on creating recreational opportunities follows the realization that mainstream sports aren't as lucrative as they once were. Since the mid-1980s, the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission has grouped its fee-generating activities -- primarily golf, ice skating and indoor tennis -- into an "enterprise division" designed to be self-supporting.
This year, for the first time, the commission is planning to use $569,000 in tax revenue to keep the division out of the red. Its golf courses have operated at a loss since 2000, according to a financial assessment conducted last year, and ice skating also has not proved as popular as expected.
The answer, said division chief Bill Mooney, is to promote "great active recreation for everybody. . . . We have to get ahead of these trends and be able to respond to them and provide recreation . . . to a more diverse community."
If there is one thing an immigrant-rich community wants, it is more space to play soccer. The Fairfax County Park Authority anticipates a need for 416 public soccer fields by 2013, up from the 239 that exist today. Fairfax has 322 diamonds available, said Sandra Stallman, the authority's long-range planner, and officials anticipate needing only 44 more by 2013.
"Our greatest need is soccer -- absolutely," said Robin Riley, a division chief in Montgomery's Recreation Department. It has about 130 registered adult soccer teams, but Riley estimated that an additional 50 to 75 unregistered teams play on county fields. As a result of the intense demand, some of the fields are "worn to ruin," she said.