EAST LAKE — Just before dusk on a hot June night, coach John Duncan lines up about a dozen 12-year-old girls for their next soccer drill under the lights. The first game won't be until October, but that does not stop the team from practicing twice weekly all summer.
Duncan is not paid during the summer, so he, like his girls, is out there for the love of the game.
East Lake Youth Sports Association can breathe easy now after years of struggling to find solid financial footing. At its June 24 meeting, the Pinellas County Commission approved a new property tax to fund the group. Starting Oct. 1, ELYSA will see an estimated $550,000 per year to keep themselves afloat while tackling long-awaited renovations to the Old Keystone Road complex.
"Sports at this level is an opportunity to gather and feel part of something that's bigger than yourself," Duncan said. "I'm really pleased that's not in any danger of going away."
The Palm Harbor Community Services Agency board will oversee ELYSA, joining other entities in unincorporated areas, such as the East Lake Library. The 30-year-old group enrolls about 1,500 athletes in soccer, football, baseball, softball and cheerleading programs.
The new East Lake Recreation Services District will levy a quarter-mill, which is 25 cents for every assessed $1,000 in property value after all exemptions.
"We're extremely excited," said Rick Watson, the association's president.
One of Watson's top priorities is his laundry list of renovations for lighting, irrigation, parking lots, concession, bathrooms and storage. Eventually, Watson also hopes to add more fields on the 100 acres the county leased to his group last year.
Aside from physical changes, ELYSA athletes will see reduced team registration fees. The fees vary by sport and team. For competitive soccer teams like Duncan's, parents said fees can top $1,000, plus another few hundred for uniforms.
"We were happy," said East Lake parent Joe Snaguski, who was one of about 300 ELYSA supporters to attend the commission meeting. "We have three girls playing, so any break we will take."
Only one East Lake resident spoke in opposition to the recreation tax before the vote, saying it should go to a ballot first.
"Kids having access to recreation is good for the entire community," said County Commissioner Susan Latvala, who has been a big supporter of ELYSA. "Nobody wants their taxes raised, that's for sure. But when they see it dedicated to something as invaluable as this, they're okay with it."
Watson also plans to start a lacrosse program in January, as the youth sport gains popularity in Central Florida and nationwide.
But the biggest comfort to participants and staff is not the promise of renovated facilities nor new programming. It's that youth sports in East Lake are here to stay.
"In the end, if we didn't get a single bit of capital improvement out of this, and all we got was the continued existence of sports-playing at those fields, I'd take that," Duncan said, explaining that renovations are secondary to him. "I don't mind going into a windowless room and changing into my soccer uniform if it means the fields will still be there in 20 years."
Contact Julie Kliegman at [email protected] or (727) 445-4159. Follow @jmkliegman.