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March 16, 2009

Charlottesville Mayor Norris calls for study of athletic fields; reiterates support for McIntire YMCA

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Mayor Dave Norris

Charlottesville Mayor Dave Norris has called on his fellow City Councilors to amend the McIntire Park master plan to preserve the existing softball fields. Norris made his remarks at a March 14, 2009 press conference in which he called for a study of how to better allocate the community’s existing fields.

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The press conference, held at the park’s concession stand, was held to clear up the notion that the softball fields are threatened by plans to build a 70,000 square foot aquatic and recreation center in the park. Norris began by explaining why he supported the YMCA proposal when it came forward two years ago. At the time, he said Council was facing a decision on the future of its indoor and outdoor swimming pools. The indoor Smith and Crow pools were both in need of substantial repairs, and Norris said the City was faced with the prospect of needing to replace both while only having enough money to build one. 

“We heard loud and clear from the citizens that one facility wasn’t enough,” Norris said. “We did a needs analysis where we demonstrated that the need for indoor aquatics and indoor recreational facilities was actually more than [Smith and Crow] alone could meet.”

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The area marked in red is the section of the park in which the YMCA is allowed to build. This new design from VMDO Architects shows a layout that will allow the park to coexist with the existing softball fields

The Piedmont Family YMCA approached the City with a proposal to fulfill some of the City’s needs. The YMCA offered to pay for the cost of building a new facility on City land, with the City’s contribution being leveraged against County funding and  private donations. The County will contribute $2 million to the project’s first phase, which will consist of building the outer shell. That money, which was earmarked in 2007, will now come from unused transportation funds, according to County Facilities Development Director Bill Letteri. They were originally intended to match VDOT funding which has not materialized. Those funds are part of the County’s general capital projects fund balance which stood at $31,476,084 as of June 30, 2008. 

The City’s only contribution for the facility is the ground lease, allowing the City to concentrate on building a new Smith pool at Buford Middle School, which is expected to open in the fall of 2010. Crow Pool at Walker Upper Elementary School is expected to be retired at some point afterwards.

Norris called for the press conference, however, to clear the air regarding what he said was a myth that the YMCA would displace the existing softball fields at McIntire Park. When the master plan for the park’s western half was developed, those fields were replaced with a rectangular field. Former City Parks Director Mike Svetz said this was because a needsan assessment showed there was a greater need for fields for football, soccer, lacrosse and other sports. Norris said his support for that master plan was conditioned on having lights installed at Darden-Towe Park, which is operated jointly by the City and Albemarle County. Those plans are now on hold.

 “In hindsight, I think there were some lessons learned and suffice it to say some things we should have done differently,” Norris said. Most notably, he said the needs of the softball community were not adequately taken into consideration. He said the YMCA proposal has unfairly been blamed.

“They have said from the beginning that they are happy to co-exist in McIntire Park with the softball leagues,” Norris said. He pointed the audience’s attention to a new illustrative design which depicts the YMCA’s ground lease as being totally separate from the softball fields. He formally called upon Council to amend the master plan to specifically preserve the fields, but added that was only half of what the community needs.

“We have to take proactive measures to address the needs of other sports and also to continue to see how we can expand the availability of space for softball,” Norris said.  He called upon the City, the County, the University of Virginia and area sports leagues to undertake a recreational field utilization study. This would involve an inventory of area fields, suggestions of where new fields could be added, and to come up with a better plan of how to split the existing fields between different sports.

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Denny Blank, CEO of the Piedmont Family YMCA

“Right now we’re sort of arguing over pieces of this pie, and the pie is simply not big enough,” Norris said. 

Denny Blank, CEO of the Piedmont Family YMCA, disputed the idea that his organization is a private club, and said free memberships will be offered to those who can demonstrate they cannot afford to pay. Blank said that Paul McIntire, the man who donated the land for the park, served on his organization’s Board of Directors.

“We at the YMCA have always felt it was important to preserve the green space [in McIntire Park],’ Blank said. He said the ground lease the YMCA has signed with the City surrounds the picnic shelters and the structure will be built in a ravine. The existing picnic shelters in the location will be dismantled and moved to another location in the park. Blank said the YMCA supports the efforts to preserve the softball fields.

Norris invited representatives from other groups to speak as well. Toya Washington of the group Urban Vision said the YMCA’s proximity to Charlottesville High School met a community need for better access to recreational facilities. Chad Day of the 1,200-member Charlottesville Sports and Social Club said he is having a hard time finding enough fields to support his club’s activities. Bill Mueller, Executive Director of the Soccer Organization of Charlottesville-Albemarle, said there aren’t enough fields in the area to support the 2,500 children and adults who play in his league on a given Saturday.

“On game day today, we’ve got 30 fields all around the City and County in use, and even at that, it’s not enough,” Mueller said. “We’re trying to cut the pie into too fine a slice.”

In April 2008, the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors approved plans for SOCA to build six outdoor fields and a 38,000 square feet indoor practice facility as part of the new Belvedere development. SOCA has to raise the funds to build the facility, which isn’t conditioned on the build-out of the Belvedere development.

Sean Tubbs

 

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