Pensacola, Florida
Sunday April 21st 2019

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Soccer Complex Conundrum

By Jeremy Morrison

On any given Saturday morning in the fall or spring, Pensacola’s athletic fields near the Roger Scott Complex is a youth sports bonanza. Spread across a collection of fields and crammed into a finite parking lot, parents and kids from three different sports descend for the weekend games.

“It was just insane at Roger Scott,” says Pensacola Parks and Recreations Director Brian Cooper.

Although there aren’t technically any dedicated soccer fields at the complex, a lot of the activity was driven by the sport. In 2012, the city saw 300 kids playing soccer during a single season, whereas currently, more than 800 take to a collection of redrawn baseball and football fields each fall and then again in the spring.

“When we were playing with 300 kids in the outfield in the fall, it was no big deal because we could get the fields recovered,” explained Cooper.

The city has been on the lookout for a while now for an area to place a dedicated soccer complex to accommodate the sport’s growth. In November, the Pensacola City Council gave the go-ahead for discussions concerning a potential deal with the YMCA on Langley Avenue that would provide the city with some needed land near Hitzman Park and give the Y some space at the Vickery Center near Roger Scott.

But Scenic Heights neighbors near the proposed project are voicing some concerns, contending that the area can’t handle the uptick in traffic and doesn’t want changes made at the park.

“We’re totally for a soccer complex, and there’s a need for it,” said Eric Dickinson, “just not there.”

‘Just Not There’
On a crisp Sunday morning in Hitzman Park, a couple walks their dogs. Some kids enjoy a birthday party beneath the pavilion, and Renaissance-types begin setting up for what nearby resident Sharon Dickinson described as “jousting.”

“They come out every Saturday and Sunday,” she said.

Dickinson is among those Scenic Heights neighbors concerned about the city’s plans to put a soccer complex at the park. Since her son, Eric, alerted her to the issue, she’s gone door to door telling her neighbors about plans and collecting signatures for a petition against the effort.

“The traffic, it’s very busy,” Dickinson said. “That is our biggest concern.”

One of the people Dickinson told about the soccer complex was nearby resident Krista Hobgood.

“I’m not saying there’s not a need,” Hobgood said. “I just think that they need to look at some place bigger.”

Dickinson also spoke with Melissa McKnight, who thinks the city will eventually want to expand the complex to the point of pushing out the current park, cutting down trees and removing playground equipment.

“So, this is just the beginning,” she said.

These neighborhood residents are only recently learning of the city’s plans. They didn’t attend November’s city council meeting, during which a chamber full of youth soccer proponents spoke in favor of the project.

“Everybody got up and talked about rah-rah soccer,” Hobgood said. “If we would have known about it, we would have shown up with bells on.”

These residents are concerned about not only the traffic increase on a route already impacted by the nearby addition of the ST Engineering Aerospace facility at the airport but also about the loss of the YMCA facility and services and the effect on nearby residents of things like field lighting.

“It’s more of a neighborhood, and I think this would just overwhelm the neighborhood,” said Eric Dickinson. “I don’t feel like Cordova Park or East Hill were fighting to put a complex in their neighborhood.”

Dickinson suggested the city look elsewhere, perhaps outside city limits, maybe even at somewhere like Osceola Golf Course.

“Look at Osceola Golf Course. That’s a big piece of land,” he said. “Again, everybody’s for soccer. Everybody’s for a soccer complex. But why is this smaller piece of land being considered instead of a large piece of land?”

Critics of locating the city’s soccer complex off of Langley Avenue plan to take their concerns to officials. They’ll be showing up at city council meetings and urging reconsideration.

“I don’t see it as an asset for Scenic Heights,” Dickinson said.

Game On?
When considering a place to put the city’s proposed soccer complex, Cooper originally settled on the Mallory Heights Park off of Goya Drive. The city budgeted $1.2 million for the project for the past two years.

However, Mallory Heights wasn’t big enough to accommodate the three fields and associated amenities like parking, restrooms and concessions. And the city’s available inventory of large swaths of land is limited.

“I’m looking all over, thinking, ‘Where can I get these fields put in?’” Cooper recalled.

The parks and rec director explored several options. One interesting dead end was a space at the Port of Pensacola.

“It was a long shot, and Mayor Hayward told me I wasn’t gonna get it,” Cooper said. “But I still wanted to take a look.”

Then, Cooper talked to the YMCA. Its aging facility sits next to Hitzman Park, and the organization already conducts games on the fields.

“The next thing I knew, we’re talking about, ‘Hey, what if we work a deal for the land next to Hitzman for y’all?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah,’” Cooper said.

This deal would involve the city getting the YMCA’s property and fields, enabling the creation of a three-field complex next to Hitzman, and the city would lease the YMCA space in the Vickery Center. The YMCA would also take over some of the city’s recreational offerings at the site.

Though still in the discussion stage,  the deal, in addition to the geography swap,  would likely include a change to the local youth sports landscape. Currently, both the city and the Y offer sports like soccer. Perhaps, said Cooper, they will consider reducing such overlap.

“We talked about, ‘Hey, what are we doing that’s a duplication?’” Cooper said. “Their programs and our programs will shift a little bit. All that hasn’t been ironed out yet.”

Cooper has heard from the neighbors concerned about the complex’s impact on the area. He plans to speak to them at upcoming neighborhood meetings.

“They think we’re tearing out all the trees and we’re tearing out the disc golf course, and we’re gonna clog Langley Avenue with traffic,” he said, assuring that information was inaccurate. “That’s the narrative that’s being created. But it’s just because I haven’t gotten out and talked to them yet.”

Cooper feels that the Y’s property off Langley represents the best opportunity for the city to realize a much-needed facility for youth soccer. He believes the city can address the concerns of nearby residents, concerns about traffic, safety and changes in their neighborhood park.

“These will be their concerns,” Cooper said. “Well, those are my concerns.”

City Councilman P.C. Wu, whose district includes Hitzman Park and who lives nearby, has also heard from neighbors concerned about the soccer complex. He cautions that the city hasn’t made any final decision yet and the council’s vote in November simply allowed the city to pursue discussions with the YMCA.

“It’s almost like everybody is up in arms like it’s a done deal, but all we did was say, ‘Let’s take a look at it,’” Wu said.

The councilman said that he’d have to “see what the city brings us” before making any decision on moving forward with the project but also noted that the park might be the best available option.

“I’m only a couple of blocks from Langley myself,” Wu said. “I wouldn’t be shooting myself in the foot.”