Delaware Union scrambles to find more field space

DOVER — The grass is greening, practice is just days away and the Delaware Union is scrambling.

With the spring soccer season quickly approaching, the program needs more field space.

Months of discussions with city officials didn’t produce the desired results.

On Friday, the possibility of using the Capital School District’s William Henry Middle School fields didn’t pan out either.

After a 25-year stay, the nonprofit youth organization and its 500-plus players no longer have Saturday mornings at Schutte Park on Electric Avenue, so the Union will play all games at its Lewis Road facility this spring.

A new city soccer program will play at Schutte in the spring, along with a girls lacrosse program.

A complicated set of moving parts led to the angst now in play, much of which revolved around the Union’s relationship with the City of Dover’s Parks and Recreation Department.

The sequence began when a parks and recreation-needs assessment study in late 2014 indicated some residents felt an affordable soccer league was needed in the city; staff began investigating what could be done.

According to Parks and Recreation Director Ann Marie Townshend, the city studied municipal leagues in Harrington and Milford charging $40 to $50 per player, and saw opportunity for Dover to do the same.

So in collaboration with the Dover YMCA’s and Holy Cross Elementary School’s existing programs, the City of Dover established a program that debuted in September 2015.

In March 2015, according to Ms. Townshend, the city notified the Delaware Union by letter that Schutte Park would not be available to rent for the season, effective July 1, 2015.

During the summer, however, an agreement allowed the Delaware Union to rent Schutte’s rear field area near the Dover Little League park for the fall season, while the city program took the two front fields.

A crisis was temporarily averted, but field space for the spring was not guaranteed.

This week, Union President Dan Simmons said he’s baffled by the situation.

“I’m not trying to attack the city,” he said. “I grew up in Dover, played soccer here all my life, and I want it to be a better place to live. There’s a reason for this that I can’t wrap my head around.”

Mr. Simmons reached out to state Rep. Sean Lynn, D-Dover, regarding the upcoming loss of Schutte Park, and Rep. Lynn emailed a message to Ms. Townshend on May 7, 2015, that read:

“I strongly support The Delaware Union and their ability to continue the fields at Schutte Park.

“Please let me know how I can make this happen.”

The next day, Ms. Townshend replied to Rep. Lynn to clarify the context of Schutte’s availability.

Ms. Townshend cited the Delaware Union’s transition from being the Central Delaware Soccer Association and cost.

“Since this time, the cost of participation in this recreational soccer program has increased where it is no longer affordable to many Dover families,” she said.

“Additionally, because they are part of a larger organization, many of the games are played in Middletown. It is no longer a local soccer program …”

Ms. Townshend said a key to the city’s program is that there’s no travel involved.

At a November 2015 meeting with the Union, Ms. Townshend said she indicated the Schutte fields were available to use on Saturday afternoons and all day on Sundays. The possibility of using Dover Park also existed.

That conflicted with the Union’s long-standing Saturday play, and the organization did not believe Sundays were created for recreational soccer matches.

“For the past 25 years we have operated on Saturday mornings,” Union Technical Director Chad Reed said.

“We run from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. now and running the program Saturday afternoons is not possible.”

Union leadership questioned why the smaller, newer city program couldn’t operate on Saturday afternoons instead.

“As for Sunday, we never want to take up families’ Sundays for many reasons,” Mr. Reed said. “Ann Marie is the issue and I will leave it at that.”

Dover Park was not in playing shape, Mr. Simmons said.

“It’s overgrown and I question the safety of it,” he said.

Finding an alternative

Still seeking a middle ground, the Union met with city representatives several times as the possibility of fitting more fields into Schutte Park for the spring was discussed.

Ms. Townshend said the alternative wouldn’t work, citing added wear on the fields, limited parking spots, stress on the nearby Pitts Center, and a parks and recreation staff that could be overwhelmed with questions and concerns from Union attendees, adding to the confusion.

Plus, Ms. Townshend contended, the city’s still developing program could be damaged if its members had a bad experience early on, threatening their desire to return in the future.

In the fall, the Delaware Diamonds Lacrosse Club’s girls’ program applied for and received spring use of Schutte Park’s back field area for the third straight year, city officials said.

“We had verbal discussion prior to fall with the lacrosse league,” said Ms. Townshend, noting that the Union has not submitted a permit application.

Ms. Townshend believes the city is doing what it can to best facilitate youth soccer for all, and pointed to the Dover Park multi-purpose field as an alternative for the Union.

“I do believe we have offered all we can to provide an opportunity for them to use the city’s space without diminishing the quality of either program,” Ms. Townshend said.

The Union will use its five-acre complex on Lewis Road provided by Kent County Levy Court, but Mr. Simmons said the entire program playing there would be problematic for many reasons, including parking issues and number of teams involved on that field space.

The Union has made $250,000 in improvements to the Lewis Road site, Mr. Simmons said.

Glenn Mandalas, chairman of the Dover YMCA board, said the partnership with the city program “is a huge piece, it’s helped us grow our program. Now we have a larger pool of kids who can play, and we can form more teams, more leagues.”

This spring, the YMCA will have 125 to 150 players in the program.

“Maybe we can form a partnership with the Union, who knows,” Mr. Mandalas said. “Results come from talking and it seems nobody’s talking about it now.”

Mr. Mandalas said, “I’ve known Anne Marie Townshend a long time and know she has no ax to grind. She’s trying to do the right thing.”

Ms. Townshend said the fall program had 377 children registered — 192 children through the city, Holy Cross had 94 and the YMCA 91.

“I would anticipate similar numbers for the spring, perhaps with some modest growth,” she said.

Working it out

Earlier this week, city councilman David Anderson, who is chairman of the city’s parks, recreation, and community enhancement program, said, “Longer term I think we can look at the redesign of Schutte Park to utilize space that is unused and can host another group.”

As far as the interactions between the city and Union officials, Mr. Anderson said, “At some point I think there could have been better communication.”

The Union was represented at a Dec. 14, 2015, meeting of the parks and recreation committee, Mr. Anderson said, and the field issue was added to the agenda. A committee member suggested the possibility of the Union playing at William Henry Middle School on Carver Road, as was done years ago as the Central Delaware Soccer Association.

“In December we worked as a council to get everyone together,” Mr. Anderson said. “We added it on to the agenda.”

Recorded minutes of the meeting indicated Mr. Simmons “stated that he was flexible and the Delaware Union was willing to do whatever was needed, noting that the organization had worked very well with the city throughout the last 25 years and wanted to do everything he could to continue this relationship.

“He requested the date and time in January when a meeting would be held,” according to the minutes.

According to Mr. Anderson, no Union representative attended January’s meeting when the city “wanted to follow up on how things went with the Capital School District because the last thing we want is a thousand kids to be displaced.”

Ms. Townshend emailed Mr. Simmons at least twice to notify him of the January meeting, she said, and no response came back.

“My assumption was they had worked it out with William Henry,” Ms. Townshend said.

Mr. Simmons, however, said the email didn’t indicate he was invited to attend, and he wasn’t sure if he would be allowed to sit in. He was invited to the December meeting, and did not think the January notification extended the same offer.

“I didn’t want to just barge in,” he said.

Regarding previous interactions, Mr. Simmons said, “The conversations I’ve had face to face with Ann Marie Townshend have been pleasant. I’m not sure why I wasn’t invited to the January meeting.”

Mr. Reed cited the City of Dover’s Comprehensive Plan that states “Schutte Park functions as a regional athletic center, as home to soccer fields utilized by the Central Delaware Soccer Association, lighted softball fields, and the Dover Little League Park …”

In the needs-assessment report, approved by city council on Aug. 24, 2015, Schutte Park was described in part as “a regional athletic center, home to multipurpose fields used for soccer, field hockey, and girls lacrosse; lighted softball fields …”

Comparing programs

Mr. Reed said he’s frustrated that his organization can’t play at the Schutte Park that his father Charles “Chatty” Reed helped build approximately a quarter century ago.

In the fall, the city program’s registration cost per player was $40, which included a T-shirt. Officials said 108 of the 192 participants were from Dover, coming from all areas of the city.

“We had very good diversity in the program in terms of where people lived,” Ms. Townshend said.

“It was a good cross section of all economic groups, and kids came from Fox Hall, New Street, public housing and many other neighborhoods.”

Mr. Reed wondered, “If City of Dover is an affordable program, then why not offer it for the price of a $10 T-shirt?

“Affordable in the fact that they have partnered with two other programs to make their program possible. To my knowledge the YMCA and Holy Cross have no history with Schutte Park and have never provided a service at a city park.”

The Union player registration fee is $70 for under-8 boys and girls and older, officials said; a $20 fundraiser also can be sold; the Union website said the price is $40 for the orange and navy jerseys, along with navy shorts. Socks are not included.

Mr. Simmons said “we don’t turn anyone away,” and the Union has given thousands of scholarship dollars each season for families in need.

The Union’s fees are comparable to local youth baseball and lacrosse leagues, Mr. Simmons added.

Earlier this week, Robin Christiansen sounded more like a referee than Dover’s mayor when discussing the ongoing field issues.

The mayor and city councilman James Hutchison worked with the city and Union leadership to facilitate the fall agreement, but a long term solution remains elusive. Union representatives said they were appreciative of the assistance.

“As mayor and someone who takes no sides on the matter, it’s my responsibility to all the citizens to get people to sit down and talk in an attempt to form partnerships and resolve issues,” Mayor Christiansen said Wednesday.

“I have never seen an issue yet so damning that it can’t be resolved with some healthy, honest discussions. …

“I haven’t given up on it and won’t give up on it because we have a lot of good people at the table who are all adults and who if are truly committed to the interests of the children in this community will work together to resolve any differences or problems.”

City, Union, YMCA

The city program included five age divisions covering 4- to 14-year-olds in its debut last fall. The eight-game season was played on Saturdays, and one practice a week was held. No standings or scores were kept.

Coaches were primarily volunteer parents of the players, who all underwent a background check, Ms. Townshend said. The City of Dover contracted officials who were also subject to a background check.

As with all sports leagues and athletic programs, city parks and recreation sports coordinator Steve Pickering oversaw the soccer program.

“City staff is responsible for administering the program,” Ms. Townshend said.

Schutte Park fields are divided into three areas, and the City of Dover rents an area for 10 weeks for $400.

During a Friday night winter program with a $30 registration fee, 89 players took part.

YMCA officials said player registration is $50 for members, $60 for community members, and scholarships are available through the Open Doors program. The YMCA keeps the money it receives from its players who join.

An email attempt to reach Holy Cross for comment was not successful.

Explaining the Union’s registration fee, Mr. Reed said all players from TOPS special needs to elite level can take part, and the cost includes one game and one practice each for eight weeks, one weekly session with a professional coach and two free 3 v. 3 tournaments.

The Union program provides young referees opportunity to gain experience, Mr. Reed said, and “City of Dover does not have official qualified refs.”

Also, Mr. Reed said the Union is governed by US Soccer, the governing body of the sport in the United States, and follows its guidelines.

“Delaware Union offers both boys and girls programs, whereas the city was a mixed bag,” Mr. Reed said. “We offer age appropriate programs whereas the city was a mixed bag.”

Reach staff writer Craig Anderson at canderson@newszap.com

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