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Lutz calls foul on new soccer fields deal

LUTZ — This community built its own landmark school house in 1926. It tore out an orange grove for its own Little League fields in 1974. And today, surrounded by modern suburbs, Lutz faithfully maintains its own volunteer fire department.

But Hillsborough County parks officials have offended Lutz's sturdy sense of self-reliance.

In preparation for building a trio of soccer fields in the heart of Lutz, the county has invited the Black Watch Soccer Club, from outside Lutz, to run the program.

"We're not at all happy," Auralee Buckingham, Lutz's leading civic organizer, said at a meeting Thursday night. "We'll be lucky if the Lutz kids have a place to play."

The 25-year-old Black Watch club, which rents a package of fields south of the University of South Florida, has been lobbying Hillsborough County for years for a partnership arrangement at a county soccer complex. County Commissioner Jim Norman promoted the Lutz connection in 2006, soon after he helped secure funding to build the new fields.

John Brill, spokesman for the county's Parks, Recreation and Conservation Department, said the county will contract with Black Watch to maintain the soccer fields and run the soccer program.

But he said that cannot happen without participation from soccer moms and dads in Lutz.

"They want to run a community-based soccer league, and they're going to need the local folks to do it," Brill said.

The fields could be ready in as little as a year. They will be the county's first soccer fields in Lutz, built as an expansion of the 1974 project.

Although the deal would be Black Watch's first such partnership, these arrangements have become a necessity for the county. Property-tax cutbacks have shrunk county operations money so much that all maintenance of ballfields is being turned over to sports leagues that use them. In return, the leagues regulate use of those fields.

"It's worked everywhere else," Brill said.

Not always.

Earlier this year, a group of men complained that the Hillsborough County United Soccer Club had stopped their informal twice-weekly soccer games by turning the lights off at the Ed Radice Sports Complex in northwest Hillsborough County.

A league official acknowledged that the organization had become more sensitive about how often the field was used, because the club has to bear the expense of maintaining it.

The Lutz leaders would be happy to form their own league, as they have done with baseball, softball and football. But Brill said a group with Black Watch's soccer expertise was needed.

"Oh, garbage," responded Jeff Means of the Lutz Civic Association, a former soccer coach. "There are a million people out there in Lutz with that kind of expertise."

Part of Lutz's worry is Black Watch itself, known for elite, highly competitive teams and links to professional soccer. The Lutz leaders are more interested in recreational soccer, with its emphasis on fun rather than winning.

"You don't want a competitive organization running a recreational program when you only have three fields," said Means.

Tom Scallon, a former president of Black Watch, estimated that 80 percent of the Lutz participants, like those in most other programs, will be recreational players. If that's the way kids sign up in Lutz, the fields would be allocated accordingly, Scallon said.

"The recreational program is what drives your league," Scallon said.

But Black Watch will be in charge of signups, Means argued. What's to keep Black Watch families from around Tampa Bay from converging on Lutz and filling the program? he asked.

"It should be Lutz first and the rest of the county, second," Means said.

Bill Coats can be reached at (813) 269-5309 or coats@sptimes.com.

Lutz calls foul on new soccer fields deal 04/18/08 [Last modified: Monday, April 21, 2008 4:20pm]
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