No action on $40-million plan for parks

11/07/07 Mitch E. Perry
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Hillsborough County Commissioners approved a motion today to conduct a public hearing early next on a proposal to steer up to $40-million to parks throughout the county.

The motion was spearheaded by Commissioner Brian Blair, who spoke of it in the immediate aftermath of the Board rejecting Commissioner Jim Norman’s dream of a sports complex called Championship Park.

Blair says a viable plan can be developed to reallocate some or all of the $40-million set aside for Norman’s park.

The money would come from the Community Investment Tax (CIT).

Several citizens – including a few youth sports coaches - spoke up before the vote, advocating that the county do something to help out the kids.

Woody Luke works with the Westchase Colts youth football team. He says the club has needed a park to call its own since its creation six years ago.

Dean Walters said he recently moved to Hillsborough County, and was stunned to learn that children in south county are on long waiting lists to play various sports. He says he helped create a group called the Southshore Juinor Longhorns to alleviate some of the overcrowding.

In making his pitch to his colleagues, Blair mentioned the success of local athletes in Hillsborough County, and said with more facilities, there would be more opportunities for the youth in the area to realize their potential.

Blair said the CIT has funded many other projects since its creation in 1996, but not the Parks amd Recreation Department.

Mark Thornton, director of Parks Recreation and Conservation in the county, said since 2003 about 30 percent of the county's fields have been built from CIT funds. He said a needs assessment survey for parks is almost ready to be presented to the board.

CIT funding is available for capital projects, like the building of new parks, but is not for operations, such as upkeeping those facilities. This has become a bigger issue after budget cuts were mandated by the state Legislature earlier this year.

Last month when Commission Chair Jim Norman looked for allies in support of his Championship Park, he found no supporters on a board that is 6 to 1 Republican.

From their comments, board members did not seem to support Blair’s proposal.

Ken Hagen referenced his past as a coach to emphasize his dedication to fighting for new park facilities in the county. But he said he couldn’t vote for anything until he gets a chance to see the Assessment study.

Commissioner Mark Sharpe said he agreed with Blair that parks are a top priority. Sharpe suggested the county wait until the results come in from the the Jan. 29 election. That’s when Floridians will vote on a property tax reduction that could lead to further budget cuts by the county.

When his dreams of a Championship Park were dashed last month, Norman bitterly remarked on how the kids of Hillsborough County were the big losers. In a riff on that theme, he again spoke out angrily that parks are being ignored by the Commission.

The board voted to hold a public hearing in January or February on whether to allocate the $40-million for park facilities. The board will also get a chance to look at the needs assessment study from the Parks and Recreation Department.

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