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A campaign to fund sports fields gets under way

David Hackett, a park district commissioner, points out a large divot in a field by The Harbor School.   - Leslie Brown/Staff Photo
David Hackett, a park district commissioner, points out a large divot in a field by The Harbor School.
— image credit: Leslie Brown/Staff Photo

A lively game of soccer took place at a small field next to The Harbor School Saturday — though instead of children racing down the field, adults were dribbling, kicking and heading the ball.

The men and women are part of a new adult league formed earlier this year, and this was one of their many games this summer — a spirited affair hardly dampened by the morning’s fine mist of rain.

“The adult league is an incredible amount of fun,” said Greg Martin, head of the Vashon Island Soccer Club and one of Saturday’s players.

But with a new league in the picture, competition for Vashon’s limited field space has also been fiercer than ever lately, underscoring a problem sports advocates on the Island have been discussing and debating for years. Indeed, so limited is field space on Vashon that the new adult league, formed in April, couldn’t begin playing until July, Martin said.

Now, Vashon Park District officials and sports enthusiasts are about to embark on an Island-wide fundraising campaign that they believe will fundamentally address the long-simmering issue. They hope to raise $300,000 in private money, matching a public grant and enabling the park district to begin constructing a $1.3 million field complex on public land next to The Harbor School.

The new complex will enhance and improve what’s already there — two much-used baseball diamonds — as well as develop an expansive field that will be big enough to accommodate a few soccer matches at once. It will also include new bleachers, a concession stand and bathrooms, lighting for night practices and games, batting cages and pitcher warmup lanes. A final phase of the project — yet to be funded — includes a children’s play structure and a new basketball court.

The project represents the park district’s most ambitious effort to date, as well as the first one that has entailed a broad-based community fundraising campaign, park district officials said. “It’s a big project for us,” said Wendy Braicks, the park district’s executive director.

According to those who back the effort, the new complex is needed not only because fields are in short supply, but also because some of them — including those at McMurray Middle School and Vashon High School — are overused.

“Between the kids and the adults, several thousand people are using our athletic fields,” said David Hackett, a park district commissioner and soccer coach who joined the board several years ago to address this issue. “It’s incumbent on the park district to figure out how to resolve this situation.”

Scott Rice, a soccer enthusiast who chairs the committee that oversees the Island’s various recreational fields, agreed.

“The great news is that we have a growing number of people wanting to use outside field space,” he said. “The bad news is that because of the increased demand, we’re abusing some of our fields.”

But the fundraising campaign comes at a delicate time on Vashon, where several other fundraising efforts and civic debates about facilities are currently taking place even as the economy continues to falter.

The school district, for instance, just raised $450,000 from Island families — an effort to ensure that no teachers were laid off in the wake of a significant budget deficit. The district plans to continue an ambitious fundraising effort to support a new education foundation on Vashon and will put a bond measure before voters in February to fund a significant rebuild of its aging high school.

Allison Shirk, a grant writer for the park district who is helping in the fundraising campaign, said she realizes “donor fatigue” could be an issue.

But the recreational fields project has a built-in donor base, she noted — the thousands of people who love youth and adult sports. “We think people will be drawn to this project because it’s very tangible. It’s not an operating budget,” she said.

What’s more, the park district has several ideas about fundraising that she hopes will garner interest. On Aug. 20, for instance, project backers are kicking off the fundraising campaign with a wine-tasting at Sound Food. Meanwhile, the park district plans to offer up naming rights for the project to those who step up with significant donations. The entire complex, for instance, will be named after the donor who gives $250,000, while a baseball field will be named after someone who donates $50,000, Shirk said. Even the bleachers and dug-outs could be named, she said.

“It enables somebody to create a legacy,” she said.

Leaders in Vashon’s sports community also say they plan to play an active role in the fundraising campaign, going door to door, if necessary, to convince neighbors and friends that the effort is worthwhile. Martin, who’s father Jim Martin is a well-know backer of youth baseball and a former honorary mayor of Vashon, will be acting as a waiter at the upcoming Sound Food event.

“I’ll do whatever it takes,” Martin said.

The campaign, they say, has not only a built-in donor base, but also a built-in logic. Dribbling a ball down a field or running for a ball in the outfield are remarkably healthy endeavors — and at a time of mounting concern over youth obesity, such activities should be encouraged, they note.

What’s more, youth and adult sports strengthen Vashon’s civic fabric.

“To me, this defines a community,” said Hackett, as he watched Island adults play soccer on Saturday.

Currently called the Vashon Athletic Fields, the project is located where the old Vashon Elementary School once stood and on land owned by the school district. The lion’s share of the funding has come from a competitive grant program run by the state’s Recreation and Conservation Office. Other funds have come from King County and the private Norcliffe Foundation.

The state grant requires matching community funds to the tune of $300,000. The park district also hopes to garner $43,000 in significant in-kind donations.

But the project — eight years in the making — has had a few bumps along the way, Braicks and others said. The old Vashon Elementary School gym, for instance, had to be torn down, a move some Islanders opposed. And after a considerable effort, the park district just learned that the facility will be able to hook up to nearby pipes owned by the Vashon Sewer District — critical to the project’s success because the location of the septic system’s drainfield would have placed limitations on the project.

As a result, the project is behind schedule; the state, Hackett said, has given the park district a couple of extensions. Project backers hope to break ground this spring.

“We’re under a lot of pressure from grantors to get the project going physically,” Hackett said. “I think they’ll be absolutely demanding that we break ground as soon as the weather’s permissible next spring.”

But Hackett and others involved in the fundraising campaign are confident they’ll be successful. And to hear those involved in adult soccer talk, an expansion of Vashon’s recreational fields can’t happen soon enough. The poor condition of the fields makes them dangerous, some said. At the same time, competition for fields has sometimes led to tension among the various athletic communities vying for field time.

“It’s been a challenge. ... All the programs have suffered because of a lack of field space,” said Rice, who helped start the new adult soccer league.

Once completed, though, the new Vashon Athletic Fields will serve to strengthen Vashon’s lively sports community, he added. Already, the site — visibly located on the highway — is a gathering spot; when Rice drives home in the evening, he often sees people playing and stops to watch a baseball or soccer game.

“We’re going to give it everything we’ve got to try to convince the community how great of a value this is,” Rice said. “The community only has to come up with $300,000, which to my way of thinking is a bargain.”

A benefit for the athletic fields campaign will be held at 7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 20, at Sound Food, featuring the band Correo Aereo and wines from several local wineries. Tickes, $20, are on sale at the park district offices.

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