Vero Beach Uses Alternative Funding For Recreation

By Colleen Wixon,

INDIAN RIVER COUNTY — As area governments continued to cut recreation funding, sports groups needed to step up to the plate to keep programs running and fields maintained.

Many nonprofit leagues came with money and manpower needed to lease city- and county-owned fields. The arrangements allow governments to save thousands each year and allow recreation programs to expand.

Over the years, Vero Beach and Indian River County steadily have reduced the budgets to maintain fields and organize athletic programs. In 2007, Vero Beach set aside $18,000 for athletics and $9,000 to maintain ball fields and athletic areas. By the 2016 budget, that had been chopped to $10,000 for athletics and $5,000 for maintenance.

Until 2012, Vero Beach spent almost $30,000 a year on utilities such as water, sewer and electricity for its baseball and softball fields, said Recreation Director Rob Slezak. That's when he met with league presidents to ask for help, contracting with three groups to pay for field maintenance and utilities in exchange for almost exclusive rights to the city fields.

Indian River Sports Complex, for example, uses Vero Beach's Michael and Thompson fields for its 32-team Cal Ripken baseball league. The group mows and maintains the fields and pays utilities in exchange for exclusive use. Last year, it paid $21,037 to operate lights at the fields, passing along costs to the young athletes through $150 registration fees. Grall Softball League maintains softball fields behind Rosewood Magnet School under a similar deal, and the Vero Beach Baseball Association leases the Bob Summers Field off Indian River Drive East.

The city now is partnering with the Vero Beach Skate Park to bring skaters and, in turn, more customers to city-owned Leisure Square.

The Vero Beach City Council agreed in February to let the Vero Beach Skate Park raise an estimated $1 million to build a facility at Leisure Square, which already includes a swimming pool, weight room and basketball courts. When the skate park is completed, the city will maintain and operate it through admission fees.

Skate-park organizer Eric Toomsoo said the partnership has mutual benefits. The skate park needs a location with existing infrastructure. The city gets a skate park that helps encourage more people to use the recreation facility, generating more money for the city, he said.

"It's needed," Toomsoo said of the skate park. "The fields (at Leisure Square) have been dormant for a number of years."

Indian River County also contracts with nonprofit groups to operate programs on county-owned fields.

By doing so, there are more opportunities to participate in sports such as soccer and lacrosse not offered by the county, said county Recreation Director Mike Redstone. While the county has a recreation baseball program, for example, contracting with the Cal Ripken league gives children a chance to play in a more-competitive league than what recreation ball offers, he said.

At the same time, Indian River is selling the 16th Street baseball fields, which the county previously leased to the Indian River Sports Complex. The county terminated the lease earlier this year, saying the group failed to maintain and upgrade the fields as promised. Derek Muller, president of the group, however, claimed the fields were unusable for games because they lacked restroom facilities and concessions.

Government agreements can limit public access to fields reserved for a paying nonprofit organization. Fields often are locked up by the groups leasing them.

"We hear pros and cons," Redstone said about the county's contractual relationships with nonprofit sports organizations. "The upside is people playing in the leagues are very happy with it."

Fields are kept locked to keep them in shape for games, said Chris Thomas, one of the founders of the Indian River Sports Complex.

"There's the fear of people destroying it," Thomas said.

Groups without a user contract, but that want to use county fields regularly, still can pay to reserve them, Assistant County Administrator Mike Zito said. The Baseball Club of the Treasure Coast, for example, pays half the $40 hourly fee for field use and lights at Hobart Park fields on 58th Avenue because of a two-year agreement to rent the fields at least 300 hours a year.

Indian River County School Board member Matt McCain, a lifelong county resident, remembers playing Little League Baseball at Thompson field around 1977. Even then, ball fields were locked to discourage neighborhood children from destroying baselines and home plate, he said.

McCain defends padlocking the public fields.

"They shouldn't be open," he said. "(The fields) have got to be maintained for the children who are paying to play there."