Representatives of 20,000 Montgomery County youth soccer players are threatening to pull their games from the financially troubled Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds because they say fees have become too expensive.
In a letter last month to County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), six clubs that make up about 90 percent of Montgomery's youth players said the original vision for the facility -- as a financially self-sustaining, state-of-the-art destination for soccer-hungry kids -- has been "subverted" by poor planning.
The teams agreed to continue playing there this fall, but only after county officials pledged to mediate their dispute with the Maryland Soccer Foundation, the nonprofit organization that manages the 165-acre complex, which was built with state, county and private funding.
The cost for a team to play at the facility is $300. The rental fee for a ballfield in a county park is about $40.
The venture "is broken and needs to be fixed," wrote representatives of Montgomery Soccer Inc., Damascus Soccer Club, Potomac Soccer Association, Seneca Soccer Association, Bethesda Soccer Club and Washington International Soccer League.
The letter marks another difficult chapter for a project that has faced financial challenges since opening in 2000. The threat probably will renew debate about the economics of new recreational and cultural attractions in the county, such as the $100 million Music Center at Strathmore, and their ability to operate without taxpayer support.
"We're back at another crossroads," said County Council member Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large), who plans to hold a committee hearing on the facility's problems. "It may take some type of county subsidy."
The idea for the SoccerPlex was born in 1997, when a group of Montgomery County soccer parents -- including Discovery Communications Inc. Chairman John S. Hendricks and his wife, Maureen -- formed the Maryland Soccer Foundation, which raised $15 million from various sources, including government-backed bonds. The county agreed to lease land in South Germantown Recreational Park for $1 a year. The state and county contributed $8 million total for such infrastructure costs as roads, parking lots and utilities.
Soccer clubs chipped in by assessing a $20-per-player annual charge, which officials promised could be dropped after the facility's first five years of operation. The result was a shrine to soccer mania that features 19 fields of bluegrass turf, a 3,200-seat stadium and an indoor multipurpose field. The facility draws more than a quarter-million visitors a year and has anchored efforts to bring more recreational facilities to the rapidly growing northern part of the county.
But the SoccerPlex, which operates on a privately funded, $2.6 million annual budget, has been plagued by financial problems. In 2002, it had a $750,000 deficit, forcing SoccerPlex officials to concede that their initial business plan was flawed.
That year, the foundation began charging the clubs a per-game fee of about $290 to use the fields instead of the yearly head tax.
This year, the foundation again increased the fee to $300, prompting this summer's protest.
"Although the taxpayers of Montgomery County were assured that the SoccerPlex would become self supporting after the initial five-year investment period, many of those very taxpayers now pay exorbitant fees for the use of 'their' fields," states the letter, which is signed by the presidents of the six clubs.
"There comes a point where the weight becomes too great," said Doug Schuessler, president of Montgomery Soccer Inc., adding that the costs are passed on to players' registration fees.
Finances are not the SoccerPlex's only problem. Its leadership is in turmoil after the board of directors voted in June to oust its eight soccer-club representatives and replace them.
The board cited the requirements of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, which sets strict rules on corporate practices for public companies, including the need to guard against conflict of interest. In this case, a majority of the board apparently thought that having chief users of the facility as members constituted a potential conflict.
"We analyzed our structure and made observations and recommendations based on the current status for best practices of nonprofit corporate governance," said Kenneth D. Salomon, president of the foundation, who added that the board received two affirming legal opinions. But representatives from the six protesting clubs have called it a needless power grab that weakens local control.