When Wesley Chapel District Park opened in 2007, the county hoped that residents would use the 140-plus acres for a variety of activities.
And they have. Football, baseball, softball, basketball, lacrosse, cheerleading and soccer draw thousands of participants each year. The park has become a magnet for local youth sports, and that’s considered a good thing.
Only now it might be too much of a good thing. Overcrowding is creating a difficult situation for concurrent activities, but a few fields also need repair, and that means even less space for everyone.
As a result, some participants have been pushed out of the area altogether until the repair work is done: Eight soccer teams and 120 players now have their practices and games at the Samuel W. Pasco Recreation Complex in Zephyrhills. That extra 20-mile round trip can be a challenge to participating families, despite the fact that they paid a convenience fee to park at the Wesley Chapel Park.
Jeff Olsen, a soccer coach whose daughter now plays in Zephyrhills, says the situation is anything but convenient.
“It places a burden on the families. There’s lost time as a family, there’s lost time for homework,” he said. “There’s an extra rush on the evening schedule and extra costs for gas. So there’s a burden there.”
The teams started their season on Aug. 1 and estimated they’d be displaced for about six weeks. But more than two months later, there’s still no timetable for return.
Aside from the inconvenience, playing outside Wesley Chapel can impact the area’s reputation regarding youth soccer. Gil Gonzalez, a coach who also leads public relations efforts for the Wesley Chapel Soccer Club, says local parents want their children to play locally. If their first taste of local youth sports is a lot of inconvenience, it affects their impression of the organization.
“I think the biggest impact, in my opinion, is for newer parents, who don’t have the background in terms of understanding that this is really a temporary issue,” he said. “But if we have new parents and new players, I think it creates a negative experience for them.”
If word of mouth is negative as a result of those experiences, families might start considering competing programs for their children. If not resolved, those issues could affect recruiting and the program’s ability to grow.
The displaced teams aren’t the only ones dealing with issues related to overcrowding, Gonzalez said. The players and teams who are still at the park have to contend with their own problems.
Scheduling can be a challenge, with some teams dealing with later practices. The games themselves also are affected: Gonzalez said that matches are so close together that parents cheering at one game might have to duck incoming soccer balls from a nearby contest.
Throw in some long walks due to crowded parking lots, and it’s a situation everyone hopes is resolved quickly.
Unfortunately, predicting how and when the county will provide a satisfactory resolution is a bit more difficult. Interest and participation in youth sports has increased since the park opened, while related budgets have decreased. According to the Wesley Chapel Soccer Club, the county has decreased park and recreational spending by more than 28 percent since 2006.
Still, Gonzalez — whose daughter also now practices in Zephyrhills — is hopeful that there will be both short-term solutions (resodded fields at Wesley Chapel District Park) and long-term solutions (more space) on the horizon, whenever that may be.
“I think what will happen is there will be continued discussions for the county to acquire additional property near the district park to expand it as well,” he said.
If there’s a silver lining, it might be that player interest in soccer hasn’t really waned as a result of the extra challenges. Olsen said that even those who have to play in Zephyrhills still enjoy the sport and the competition.
“Do they mind? They like to play,” Olsen said. “But nobody wants to take a 30-minute drive out there when the rains start coming down, then take a 30-minute drive home.”
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