What did you do over the summer? Houston Wingo used his summer break from school to fight for greater park access in Homewood after being kicked off the city’s public fields on several occasions.
Houston, a rising junior at Homewood, has attended a council meeting, had discussions with the athletic director of the park board and created a petition to try to change park policies that he doesn’t agree with. His petition, which currently has 50 signatures (mostly from adults), will be presented to the city if he’s not able to reach a satisfying conclusion with them any other way.
According to Houston, the field access problem began in the late spring of 2012 when he and his friends were told to leave the Homewood Soccer Park on Lakeshore after entering through an opening where the gates end.
“There weren’t any rules posted that said you can’t be here,” he says. “There’s a sign that says ‘11 p.m. until dawn.’ So we weren’t breaking any other rules, we were just playing soccer there.”
There are currently signs at the park that read: “Closed when locked. Anyone climbing is subject to prosecution.” But Houston and his friends claim that those signs only appeared after he started inquiring about the parks being closed.
Another time, according to Houston, they went to play on Six Acres field, which is located above the baseball fields in West Homewood Park. The field was closed, so they decided to play on the outfields of the baseball fields. Park patrol officials told them that they couldn’t play there and requested their parents’ names before they left. The kids refused to identify their parents.
“They said we couldn’t be playing soccer on the baseball fields,” says Tate Atha, one of Houston’s friends. “And these are baseball fields that they do football practices on in the summer.”
Homewood Parks and Recreation Director Berkley Squires and Athletic Coordinator Jakob Stephens said that the kids were kicked off the baseball fields on that occasion because the fields were wet from a storm earlier in the week, and that the baseball outfields are usually open to a small group if there aren’t any maintenance or weather issues.
“I’ll tell you this: the baseball field, the big baseball field, if there’s four or five guys out there kicking around a soccer ball, they’re not going to be asked to leave,” Squires says.
The other field in question, Six Acres, which was locked that day, is supposed to be open to the public during the summer, but its availability will dwindle once summer ends. During the fall, it will be used for football, lacrosse, soccer and ultimate Frisbee practices and games.
But the biggest issue raised in Houston’s petition isn’t with the Park Patrol, Six Acres or the baseball fields. It’s with the city and its park policy, specifically the policy regarding the Lakeshore Soccer Complex.
Houston’s petition, which addresses the Parks and Recreation Board, cites the general fund, which uses property taxes to fund various branches of local government, including the fire department and the parks and recreation board. He refers to the 2011-2012 general fund, which budgeted $4,533,279 for parks and recreation. That was about a quarter of the average amount of money collected through Homewood’s property taxes that year, he says, arguing that because every registered Homewood citizen pays into that general fund, they should be allotted some time on the fields.
“Homewood soccer teams, having been given supreme access to the Homewood Soccer Park, have been made into what some might consider private owners of public land,” the petition states. “For the Parks and Recreation Board to not allow the general public to have regular access to the field, while giving it solely to the Homewood Soccer Club, the Board makes Homewood citizens pay taxes for something that does not service them, and that they benefit in no way from. The general public is therefore subject to taxation without justification.”
Houston, Tate Atha and his father Steven Atha, who also sometimes contributes photography to Weld, have been corresponding with the city of Homewood since mid-February about the parks issues. But in April their negotiations stalled.
“I’ve heard nothing from the mayor, nothing from the city attorney, and very little from the city representatives,” the elder Atha says. “So I would say they’ve been very uncooperative and they don’t want to talk about it.” Homewood Mayor Scott McBrayer declined to be interviewed for this story, referring comments to Squires.
Initially, Atha emailed his complaints to Squires and Linda Sellers, the former athletic coordinator of Homewood Parks and Recreation. After multiple email exchanges, Squires encouraged Atha to attend a March park board meeting so that he could bring his issue up with council members. At the meeting, Atha presented his side, but not much changed.
Eventually, Atha discovered the Homewood Parks and Recreation board leased their fields to various youth leagues (soccer, football, baseball, lacrosse and cheerleading).
From February through October, the baseball fields are leased to the Homewood Youth Baseball League, an affiliate of Metro Sports Baseball Inc., according to a “facility use agreement” obtained by Weld. While the agreement concerns the Homewood Youth Baseball League, it’s considered the “same standard facility use agreement” that is also used for the other Homewood leagues, according to emails exchanged between Atha and Jakob Stephens, the athletic coordinator for Homewood Parks and Recreation.
The agreement is strictly between the Park Board and the Homewood Youth Leagues, and doesn’t have any bearing on the public’s access, according to Squires. It calls for the league “using” the field to fill certain requirements. Among those requirements is a “rent” payment, stipulating that the league give the park board $10 of every registration fee from Homewood residents, and $20 for every non-Homewood resident, after they have covered their other expenses.
The agreement goes on to state that the Youth Leagues are not allowed to permit the use of the facilities to “outside entities” during the time of the lease without “prior written approval by the Director.” But the “outside entities” portion of the agreement should only refer to other non-Homewood youth leagues, like Hoover, or anyone that could profit of off the use of the fields, according to Squires.
This part of the lease is further explained by an addendum that concerns “individual” and “corporate” use of the fields. The addendum specifies that any corporate or individual use of the fields require an up-front rental fee for “exact dates [that] will be confirmed and abided by,” and only refers to “facilities and activities” that have been “designated” by the park board. Even though the Youth Leagues don’t have permission to restrict access to the fields, Atha says he sees how the money exchanged could create a relationship that incentivizes the Park Board to do that.
“I’m trying to figure out how they can rationalize taking money from citizens and putting it into these public — allegedly public — parks, that are frankly not public parks,” Atha says. “They are being privatized or they have been privatized in essence. Unless you pay to play the sport, then you can’t play on the fields.”
But to Squires the fees are necessary to maintain the fields, and don’t have any effect on how they are regulated. The city uses the money collected for upkeep, to buy things like paint, chalk, nets and goals.
“It doesn’t cover near the cost to maintain it, but it helps us and the city as far as managing money a little better,” Squires says. “It subsidizes a little bit.”
How public is “public”?
While the parks in question were paid for by public funds, they aren’t public in the same way that Central or Patriot Park are, according to Squires.
“Our athletic facilities are built for our youth and adult programs, and that’s what we utilize them for,” Squires says. “For free play, that’s what Central Park, Patriot Park and certain areas of green space at West Homewood Park are for,” Squires says. “Those are open free space areas that they can go to and utilize.”
Another reason the Park Board restricts the fields, specifically Lakeshore Soccer Park, is a crammed schedule. The Lakeshore fields, which are their most overused, have scheduled programs for nearly 11 months of the year. That gives parks officials five weeks, from the second week of June to the third week of July, to do maintenance.
“We could keep them open all the time, and you’re going to be playing on a dirt track,” Squires says.
While Houston can understand the need to maintain the fields, he doesn’t understand how the parks department can completely close the fields to the public when they paid to have the fields built.
“If they’re going to have taxpayers paying for these fields they should be able to use them more than they allow us already, which isn’t any,” he says. “Right now if we went to Lakeshore the fields would be locked up, but it’s the middle of the day. It’s the middle of the summer, so they should be open. It’s a park.”
Houston’s main concern is having a place to play in the offseason, but he also wants to create some openings for those that don’t play on a team during the season as he does. Wingo plays for the high school and club team, but Tate Atha and about half of the other people they play with don’t. Those kids are left with nowhere to play once school starts, as are all kids that don’t have the time to play organized sports or would just prefer to play pick-up.
“It’s also for people who aren’t on club teams,” Houston says. “Like, Tate Atha isn’t on club or the high school team, but he wants to go play soccer, and all of our friends do too. And we can’t just go do a pickup game down at the park, because there aren’t real goals.”
The closed fields and lack of soccer goals at Homewood High School – the fields have been cleared for band practice – has forced Houston and his friends to drive as far as Altamont High School, which is four miles away.
“I just wanted to play soccer this summer because there is nowhere else to go in Homewood besides the soccer fields at Lakeshore or West Homewood,” Houston says.
Cause and effect
Overuse and maintenance can explain the current lack of access, but it hasn’t always been this way. According to emails between Atha and Squires, the park board made the decision in 2009 to start opening up the Lakeshore fields every day at 3 p.m. After a while, larger groups started to appear, and in the spring and summer of 2010 there were several cases of vandalism, including graffiti and a sink being ripped out. The vandalism prompted parks officials to start closing the facilities to any non-“scheduled programs” in the fall of 2010. The current park rules state that “other” groups can use the fields only when they aren’t “locked, closed due to weather or maintenance, or being used by other Homewood programs.”
Houston’s petition suggests multiple ideas that could help ease the park board’s burden. His first proposal is to cycle the fields that the public gets to use to prevent wear and tear. He has also come up with a membership system for the fields to verify Homewood citizens. Those that want to play on the fields could acquire ID cards from the park and bring them to the fields. The current security staff could police the parks and conduct “spot-checks” for the ID cards. Over time, the security staff would know who has a card and who doesn’t, which could make their job easier. Houston envisions a system that’s similar to that in use at Homewood pool facilities.
“Members of the public and members of the Homewood Swim Team are able to share the pool in a manner that everyone benefits from,” the petition reads. “The pool is opened to the general public on a daily schedule, while certain times are set aside for the swim team to use the facilities alone. In the same way, Homewood Soccer Park could be shared by both the general public and the Homewood Soccer Club.”
Squires is aware of Houston’s suggestions, but right now he says there isn’t enough of a calling for them to open the fields again.
In the emails between Atha and Squires, Atha states that comments from a board member lead him to believe that they’ve had many complaints, but Squires says that he only knows about the complaints that reach him and that would be two, including Houston’s, in his five years as park director. And for Squires and park coordinator Jakob Stephens, the scheduling will only become more of a problem if they try to fit “free play” in on their other fields.
“They were very unclear as to exactly what they were wanting,” Stephens says, referring to a meeting about the fields he and Squires had with Houston and some of his friends. “It was almost as if they were wanting a little special area while practices where going on. But, I mean, we’ve got over a thousand kids playing soccer. We’re already trying to fit a size 12 foot in a 10 shoe.”
Houston has been offered Patriot Park, in West Homewood, and Central Park, in Central Homewood, as alternatives, but neither of those parks has soccer goals and, according to Houston, people have been kicked out when they’ve tried to set up goals. While Squires understands that the areas provided might not be as attractive as the soccer fields, he finds their request excessive.
“My question is, ‘Do I have to provide a goal post for football at Patriot as well?’” Squires asks. “I mean there’s places to go. It may not be an athletic facility and you might not have a soccer goal or a field goal or a pitcher’s mound, but our programs start after school as well, just like the school’s do. That’s what the facilities are there for. Those athletic facilities are being utilized by programs.”
Houston and Tate Atha don’t feel like what they’re asking for is unreasonable. They understand that organized sports come first in Homewood, but also think that there should still be some time set aside for everyone else on the same fields. They would like to have daylight hour access during the summer, since it’s the offseason, and a couple of hours on weekdays plus weekend access during the season.
“We know organized athletics take precedence over recreational stuff,” Tate Atha says. “Field maintenance takes precedence, but we know there’s time in between. They’re just not giving it to us.”