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East Lake: Dream sports fields back in play

EAST LAKE — Remember those youth sports ballfields Pinellas County wanted to build at Keystone and East Lake roads?

You know, the ones that once were expected to cost upward of $2-million each?

The much-needed project, delayed last fall because of sticker shock over its cost, is back on the front burner.

And now the price should be right, officials say.

Tuesday, county commissioners unanimously approved a joint-use agreement with the Pinellas County School Board for four multipurpose fields with lights, a practice field, parking and a restroom and concession building. Once signed by the School Board, it will allow the county to seek design-build proposals for the project.

This time, officials expect construction firms will be so hungry for the work that the proposals should come in much lower.

"Originally, we were looking at $8-million," said Paul Cozzie, the county's bureau director of culture, education and leisure. "Our intent is to try to bring it in between $4- and $6-million."

The fields can't come too soon for the East Lake Youth Sports Association, which serves more than 2,000 young athletes and has outgrown its facility on Old Keystone Road.

"We still need the fields and we're still waiting," said Rick Watson, the association's president. "We're glad that things are moving in a positive direction. We hope it continues."

The grass in the soccer fields has worn-out patches that turn to mud when it rains, Watson said, and the football and soccer programs will have to turn kids away in the fall.

The youth sports association has been working to get more fields for eight years, he said.

In 2003, Pinellas County leased an additional 38.5 acres on Old Keystone Road to the group for 30 years at $1 a year. The group had planned to expand its facility there, but the plan fell through after the Friends of Brooker Creek opposed active recreation in the Brooker Creek Preserve. Neighbors and others opposed the site, too, and other alternatives were sought.

A year ago, Commissioner Susan Latvala announced that Pinellas County schools would be willing to allow ballfields on 20 acres of a site reserved for a possible middle school. But county commissioners balked when the county's estimate for building the project reached $7.3-million.

Then, nearly five months ago, Latvala said builders had told her they could do the work for much less — perhaps $3.5-million to $5-million — with a few cost-cutting changes.

Cozzie said the county hopes to go out for proposals June 17, and rank responses by early August.

"Then it should be back to the board for award in September if everything goes well," he said.

But getting Southwest Florida Water Management District permits for wetlands mitigation could take up to a year, Cozzie said.

There are ponds on the site, and the ballfields project requires raising the ground level of playing fields, Cozzie said. Raising the ground level of fields will reduce the water storage capacity at the site, he said, which drains to the Brooker Creek Preserve. The ground will be lowered on 10 of the 38.5 preserve acres where the sports association had once planned to expand, creating wetlands, Cozzie said. The soil removed also will provide cheap fill for raising the ground level of the fields.

Latvala had already anticipated the possible Swiftmud permitting delay.

"Dave Moore (of Swiftmud) is going to work with us ... will try to cut some of the red tape for us so this doesn't get hung up," she said.

Theresa Blackwell can be reached at tblackwell@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4170.

East Lake: Dream sports fields back in play 06/03/08 [Last modified: Thursday, June 5, 2008 12:41pm]
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