New London sports leagues scramble to find fields

New London - Planning for the recreational sports season this fall has involved more than just organizing rosters and sorting jerseys.

Several leagues, including the New London Soccer Club, New London Babe Ruth League, and New London Youth Football, have been displaced from their usual fields because of maintenance work.

"Do we have a place to call home? Not really," said Jason Pointkowski, president of New London Youth Football. "We've been displaced since we were kicked out of Mercer [Field] six years ago."

Calkins Park, Sal Amanti Field, and the high school athletic complex are all being renovated this year, pushing teams to fields that are more congested, less maintained, and in some cases, not designed for the sports now being played on them.

The issue has brought to light the constraints faced by a public works department that is responsible for more than 20 parks and 400 acres of property but has seen significant staffing and funding cuts in recent years.

"For me, it seems to be largely a matter of resources stretched too thin to accomplish what is needed to support programming in a timely manner," Steve Smith, president of the New London Soccer Club, wrote in an email.

Although some of the fields are scattered with holes and empty patches, Public Works, Parks and Recreation, and league volunteers have worked to secure playable areas and maintain the tradition of youth recreation.

As the city has undergone budget cuts, the Parks and Grounds Maintenance Division of New London's Public Works Department has been hit hard. In 2004 it had 10 employees but today there is six. The three or four seasonal workers, who would work from Memorial Day to the end of September, are also gone, while overtime has been cut from $54,000 in 2011-12 to $20,000 in the current fiscal year.

The six employees are responsible for preparing, mowing and maintaining the fields, litter and debris collection, trees and vegetation management, playground and fence maintenance, and custodial services for the city's parks, roadway medians, and other grassy areas. According to Tim Hanser, director of public works, the department requested an increase in staffing from the city for the past two budget cycles but was denied.

"For some of the work, there just isn't enough hours in the day to get it done," Hanser said.

Anna Stefanski, secretary of New London Babe Ruth, said that "when it comes to safety issues, they work on it as soon as possible."

Calkins Park, whose two fields are home to Saturday morning youth soccer and competitive travel leagues, is being expanded to four soccer fields. The city will also redo the baseball diamond, work on the exterior of the buildings, create two wetland buffer zones, and install a new irrigation system.

Although the plan was first presented to the city two years ago, renovations did not begin until May and are slated to be finished by June 2014. The estimated $670,000 project is being bonded by the city. The work was delayed by a wet spring, making it difficult to start treating the surface, said Bill Camosci, assistant director of engineering services for the city.

"Once we get Calkins back on board it will alleviate some of the congestion," Camosci said.

Since some of the usual fields are closed for renovations, the Parks and Recreation Department had to designate different spaces for the teams to use. While Calkins is under construction, the department suggested for the leagues to use the fields at Harbor School, Nathan Hale, and Toby May.

"There are some people like Parks and Rec, especially [Tommie] Major who make sure no matter what obstacles happen, we have a place to play," Pointkowski said.

Hanser described Harbor and Nathan Hale as "ad-hoc" fields for the city's recreation leagues.

But Smith said he was disappointed by the quality of those fields after he walked through them and noticed holes and uneven spots.

"To be quite frank some of the fields aren't intended for sports use. [Harbor is] part of the playground for a school that has not been maintained for years," Hanser said.

Hanser said it is challenging to transform a playground into an athletic field.

For instance, Toby May was not designed as a soccer field, but the city put in field lines and repaired some holes to adjust it for the league's use.

"That's basically a softball field, and we fit in a soccer field," said Dave Denoia, parks and ground maintenance manager.

Frustrated by the condition of the fields and the limited space, Smith said he also looked for other options. The Saturday morning soccer league typically requires more space for the three age divisions. Therefore, Smith looked for large facilities and found hope in the fields at The Williams School.

A miscommunication between the league and the school temporarily left the team to think they had to pay for using the fields. The parents considered raising funds and later look for reimbursement from the city

But after realizing that Smith was requesting use of the fields for teams from New London, The Williams School waived the fees.

Other displaced leagues in the city are using the Parks and Recreation's department designated spaces. Youth football, which previously used the high school athletic complex, will be using fields at Bates Woods, and Babe Ruth will be using Mercer Field instead of Sal Amanti.

"The kids don't care. It's like a field trip for them. They just want to play football," Pointkowski said.

Pointkowski, whose season started on Sunday, said the youth football league is supported by coaches, players, and families who are what he described as "resilient."

"We'll just make do. We've been making do for a couple of years now. The coaches and the kids make it work. We're just going to play football," Pointkowski said.


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