A Dec. 1 article on the SoccerPlex in Montgomery County incorrectly reported that supporter John S. Hendricks had boasted that he called two top officials and land for the complex became available immediately. Hendricks called County Executive Douglas M. Duncan and Gov. Parris N. Glendening in October 1997, and the County Council approved final plans for the SoccerPlex in March 1999. Its $1-a-year lease agreement with the county was signed three months later. (Published 12/7/02)
The parents dreamed of acres of deluxe soccer fields for the thousands of children who participate in Montgomery County's youth leagues. But the complex they built, while drawing top competitors from across the country, is in serious financial difficulty and too pricey for some local players.
After two years in operation, the huge SoccerPlex in Boyds is struggling with a $782,000 deficit and will "continue to face significant financial challenges," according to an analysis by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.
Supporters expected a corporate donor might give $3 million for naming rights, but that didn't happen. Revenue from field rentals could be more than $200,000 below projection this year and income for the complex's indoor basketball courts short by $300,000.
The County Council recently granted the Maryland Soccer Foundation, the nonprofit that runs the complex, an emergency lease amendment that will allow it to host business conferences and trade shows in its indoor sports center. The goal is to help the organization while avoiding actual monetary assistance, as well as a taxpayer-funded bailout that some county officials fear.
The council move infuriated SoccerPlex's residential neighbors, who say a well-intentioned plan to seed fields for kids has morphed into a playground for the rich, the "soccer monster" they predicted long ago.
"They sold it to the County Council as this wonderful soccer land for kids," said Rita Auth, a member of the Germantown Citizens Association. Now, says neighbor Laura Creedon, "It's become a huge conglomerate that incorporated the entire Eastern Seaboard. This is their futile attempt to try and keep their head above water."
Officials of Montgomery Soccer Inc., the county's largest youth league, say they are no happier. In fact, they say they're furious that SoccerPlex has jacked up fees so steeply that its member clubs now pay nearly $300 a game while out-of-town visitors are charged one-third that for tournament play. Management counters that MSI and eight other affiliated clubs agreed to help cover costs in exchange for membership.
"SoccerPlex is not adequately fulfilling its primary mission to serve the youth of Montgomery County," MSI officials wrote the Planning Board in August.
Trish Heffelfinger, executive director of the Maryland Soccer Foundation, said the operation will begin breaking even next year, but it still needs additional revenue. The foundation initially anticipated raising more than $6 million in corporate and other gifts during its first six years. In 2001, however, total sponsorship income was $354,995, far less than the $992,000 target.
With 44,000 square feet, the indoor sports center is the county's largest meeting space. It often stands empty during off-peak times. Heffelfinger said numerous businesses have inquired about renting it for conferences and employee meetings, which could bring in tens of thousands of dollars.
And, neighbors say, even more traffic and congestion.
"We want them to be successful. We don't want to have to take it over," said outgoing council member Nancy Dacek (R-Upcounty). "On the other hand, we don't want to have so much going on out there that the neighborhoods are severely impacted. It's a balancing act."
The complex was heralded as a unique public-private partnership when it opened in 2000. The soccer parents who formed the foundation raised $15.8 million toward construction. The county agreed to lease them land in the South Germantown Recreational Park for $1 a year and secured more than $10 million in public funding for improvements and infrastructure.
Little expense was spared as the project became reality, with 19 laser-graded fields carpeted in thick Bermuda and bluegrass turf, a 3,200-seat stadium with custom lighting and an indoor facility for field hockey, basketball and soccer. The latter was built with a $1 million donation from Discovery Communications Inc.
The county estimates that two tournaments held at the SoccerPlex last summer, including the Snickers U.S. Youth Soccer National Championships, generated $1 million in hotel room sales. More than 290,000 people have visited since its opening.
But all the luxury amenities -- adored by players and parents used to pockmarked and shaggy park fields -- have been tough to finance.
To meet bond payments and other expenses, the foundation has been forced to borrow, and its biggest boosters, Maureen and John S. Hendricks, have come through with $700,000, according to the foundation's financial report. John Hendricks is Discovery's chairman and chief executive officer.
While the couple declined to talk for this article, in past interviews they have recounted how, over dinner at a Bethesda pizza parlor in 1997, they conceived the idea of a world-class facility for area youth. Hendricks has boasted that he made two phone calls -- one to County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) and one to Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) -- and the land became available instantly.
SoccerPlex's backers and its future neighbors eyed each other with suspicion from the start. A 1998 public hearing deteriorated into a nasty free-for-all. Soccer moms packed the auditorium with their youngsters dressed in jerseys and knee pads, only to be greeted with boos and catcalls. One neighbor jeered at Maureen Hendricks, "Go back to Bethesda!"
Today, the divide extends to the soccer community itself.
"We'll pay whatever it takes to get good fields," Fred Osher, a board member of the Bethesda Soccer Club, said over the thunk of soccer balls and the shouts of onlookers on a recent morning. The complex's organizers "developed their financial plans at a time when the economy was steaming along. . . . It's been hard to sustain in this climate."
But Montgomery Soccer Inc. officials say they might not renew their contract with the facility if fees continue rising. Its teams, comprising 15,000 local children, pay 70 percent of SoccerPlex's player assessments.
And the Upper Montgomery Athletic Club already has been squeezed out. Its small baseball league, which has 550 children from Germantown and adjacent communities, couldn't afford to rent practice space in the indoor sports center this winter, club President Gene Lowery said.
"We've got a big white elephant sitting down there," Lowery said. "It cost a lot of money to build, and now it's in financial trouble."
The council just approved the project's second phase of construction, which will include three more playing fields. The only condition was that SoccerPlex raise the $686,000 needed and not tap its already depleted operating budget.
"It will continue to be tight for the next three years," said Heffelfinger, who refuses to call the current financial situation a deficit. With the indoor soccer season jammed to capacity and a list of teams waiting to play, she said, "we are moving in the right direction."