LUTZ — Despite recession-driven budget cuts to many programs, Hillsborough County is moving ahead with a long-planned project to expand and add soccer fields to the Oscar Cooler Youth Sports Complex.
That's welcome news to the hundreds of kids and parents who swarm the park for Little League baseball, Lutz Leaguerettes softball and Lutz Chiefs football and cheerleading.
"It's great, especially with the economy the way it is, that they've found a way to expand," said Jason Klempin, whose 14-year-old son Ross plays baseball at the complex.
For Lutz residents, the expansion is no ordinary project, because the complex has never been merely a park. Thirty-five years ago, the community came together to build the athletic complex on an old orange grove bought by the county.
Ever since, the complex, named for the man who led the effort, has become a point of pride, a rallying spot and a center of gravity for Lutz.
"We've played a lot of places: at Forest Hills, all the way around Hillsborough and even up into Land O'Lakes," said Klempin, 38, who lives in Lutz. "Here, you notice the passion and the volunteerism."
The county's plans consist of two projects.
Construction on the first started in September. It will put a $3.7 million soccer and football complex on 33 acres at the southeast corner of Lutz-Lake Fern Road and Crooked Lane.
County officials have said they want the original sports complex and the new expansion to function as separate parks so that children do not cross Crooked Lane. As a result, they designed the expansion just for football and soccer, while baseball and softball will stay on the original portion of the complex.
The soccer and football game fields, which are separated by wetlands, will each have support buildings so people "don't have to walk half a mile to find a bathroom or concessions," parks spokesman John Brill said.
The addition also will have a small playground and 315 parking spaces, according to plans.
The second project is a $300,000 retrofit and reorganization at the original sports complex. It will include renovating the ballfields, adding a new softball field, moving the junior-senior baseball diamond to where football teams now play and replacing deteriorating fences, bleachers, dugout covers and field lighting.
The lighting improvements will replace the existing wooden poles with concrete ones, said Lutz Little League president Lee Jones. And no wires will be suspended over fields, as they are now.
"Safetywise, that's going to be a huge deal to us," Jones said.
At the original complex, a new parking area will include another 120 to 130 parking spaces.
But that project will not begin until after the new addition is finished in the spring, Brill said.
Still, after years of waiting, Lutz residents say they are happy to see the bulldozers.
"I'm thrilled to death over that getting started," said Oscar Cooler, the community leader, youth sports booster and retired businessman who led the original effort in the early 1970s.
Cooler, then a parent involved in Little League baseball, saw a need for more fields and persuaded the county to buy an old citrus grove for the project. For the work, he turned to other parents.
"We put a lot of effort into this," said Cooler, now 80. "The county couldn't give us a lot of help. We had to build it almost all ourselves."
Engineers, electricians and plumbers donated their services, and local companies contributed materials or let volunteers borrow equipment. Doctors and lawyers dug ditches and hammered together boards. Night after night, spouses cooked and delivered dinners to the construction site until darkness brought the work to a halt.
"In seven months, we had three fields ready to play ball," Cooler said.
But as Lutz grew, the need for more space — for more sports, more fields and more parking — became clear.
The county paid $1.2 million in 2004 for the 33 acres where the expansion is taking place. Two years later, commissioners put $3.2 million in their budget for the expansion.
But last year, with the economy starting to bog down, a delay emerged over sports field lighting. County officials talked about delaying the project for two to four years, Commissioner Jim Norman said.
Norman had worked on the expansion for a decade and urged fellow commissioners to move ahead. The design work had been done, he said, and the county stood to get a good price from a contractor. Plus the community had a record of pitching in to help provide recreation.
"We had done so much pre-work on this that it became a good argument to say, we've got to finish this," Norman said recently. "The money's there, and the clubs are there and ready to work with us."
Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3403.