Reasons You Should Vote For The Fort Lauderdale Parks Bond
On Tuesday, March 12, voters will get a chance to vote on a $200 million 30-year parks bond for the city of Fort Lauderdale.
There will be the usual skepticism toward anything that involves government fundraising, like “the city will waste the money,” “the parks don’t actually need it” and “it’s going to lead to bigger government." Skepticism of government spending is healthy. But in this case, the clear justification for a parks bond needs to overcome to that skepticism. Having spent more time in the Fort Lauderdale parks system over the last decade than most people — except maybe the groundskeepers — I encourage you to talk to residents who frequently use the parks. The city’s park system does not have anywhere near the capacity to meet the demand of its growing population, and it needs to be improved.
Twelve years ago, I started the Fort Lauderdale Select Soccer Club. The city of Fort Lauderdale was the only major city in the entire country that did not have a travel soccer club. That in itself was significant on its own, but the reasoning behind it was indicative of a larger problem: The city would not authorize new youth sports clubs because there was no space in local parks to house them. One way to deal with a shortage of infrastructure is to try and kill the demand, which was not a great idea.
Through some intense lobbying with the city, I managed to obtain a few fields in various parks for our initial 30 kids. We moved fields every couple of months so the city could rest its overused sports fields. However, our problem was how much the program grew annually. Within five years, we had 300 kids playing and nowhere near the amount of field space we needed to play. Every year, we would pull a rabbit out of our hats so that the program could survive. One year, we found out that the county school board owed the city a mitigation fee and used it to put lights in George English Park so we could play there at night. The following year, we found a hurricane trash dump in the northwest corner of Mills Pond Park, and we convinced the city to turn it into a soccer field. It had no lights, so when it got dark we would turn on our car lights to help illuminate the field.
The following year, we convinced Commissioner Romney Rogers to convert a rundown softball field at Hardy Park in downtown Fort Lauderdale into a soccer field. He dedicated a good portion of his capital improvements budget to the project and put grass in and fixed the lights. As a youth sports organizer, something shocking to me was how little money there was for capital improvements of just about anything in the city — and parks were no exception. It took a lot of digging and lobbying just to find a couple hundred thousand dollars to put toward any kind of parks improvement. There was money to operate the parks, but no money to improve them, and certainly no money to add more of them.
For the past seven years, Hardy Park has brought the neighborhood south of the river in downtown Fort Lauderdale to life at night. There are always 50 to 60 kids playing in a park that once sat dormant. A cross fitness gym has popped up across the street, as well as a terrific local restaurant, Hardy Park Bistro. Parks are vibrant, well-populated and bring cities to life both day and night.
Eventually, our soccer club grew to 500 players, and we took over the former Fort Lauderdale Yankees practice facility next to Lockhart Stadium. It seemed like Mecca compared to the fields we’d squeezed into, but there were major infrastructure problems there too: namely no lights and no bathrooms. Well, there actually were bathrooms in the facility, but that was only if you had the courage to enter them. They were 60 years old, broken, and so dirty that touching anything was not an option. Most people used a porta-potty next to the field because it seemed cleaner. For years, we brought thousands of visiting travel soccer players into our home field and let them use our porta-potty. Welcome to Fort Lauderdale, the yachting capital of the world.
Due to the lack of fields, we eventually moved most of our kids to play to Central Regional Park in Lauderhill. After a decade of lobbying, the last city commission took bold steps toward solving our problem by using a parks tax on new development to build a soccer complex at Mills Pond Park, the site of our former hurricane trash dump. It’s a remarkable facility that brings thousands of visitors from surrounding cities, and it actually represents what a world-class city should look like. The city did not have enough money after the fields were done to build a bathroom, so don’t drink too much water before you come to a game. Regardless, it was a huge step in the right direction.
The travails of our soccer club were not unique. The story repeated itself for both of the city’s lacrosse programs which experienced a similar nomadic exercise. One gave up looking for fields and now practices in Oakland Park. There are probably a dozen other youth sports organizations which never got started in the past decade because there were no fields available to permit.
The pressing issue for adults who want to play in a park is even more difficult because they get a lower priority than children’s sports. Because youth sports teams take up all of the fields, the co-ed flag football teams, adult soccer leagues and the friend groups who just want to play touch football have little, if any, park availability in our system. Adults can often be found playing on the stone-filled parking lots next to Parker Playhouse.
I have practiced, played and coached in almost every field in Fort Lauderdale. The need to repair and improve our parks is very real. From the dearth of fields to the rundown bathrooms, or sometimes non-existent bathrooms, to other issues like handicap access, the issues grow as the city does. Neighboring cities like Plantation and Weston have half the number of residents, yet have twice the number of parks and sports fields. With the growth of Fort Lauderdale, its parks’ infrastructure issues are only going to get worse.
One of my concerns over the years has been that our city commissions historically have never had the vision to look into the future and make a plan to improve the parks system corresponding with the substantial growth of the city. The parks system has trailed the city’s size by 20 years — almost since the city’s inception. To their credit, however, the past two city commissions have worked to address the parks system, and for the first time in 25 years, there is a parks bond on the ballot. On Tuesday, March 12, it’s up to the voters to plan for the future.