CLEARWATER — In 2002, as the Philadelphia Phillies prepared to leave their longtime spring training home at Jack Russell Stadium, city officials began looking for ideas on what to put there next.
A Miami housing group proposed building townhomes and affordable apartments. A real-estate firm suggested a sprawling business park. Others wanted recreation space, restaurants or a movie theater.
Visit those 16 acres now near the heart of North Greenwood and you'll see what happened next: nothing. Hindered by community discord and the weak economy, the plans fizzled, and the land that could have been so much remains a blot of empty space.
The idea of a low-income retirement home, suggested by a consultant that the city paid $70,000, was called "an insult to our community." Developers worried that the land was too far off a main road or too difficult to rezone. And few in the community seemed to agree on what their neighborhood needed to grow.
The inertia shows what can happen when a community's fractured vision meets the reality of frozen development. The situation raises questions about the lost opportunities for this low-income neighborhood, where jobs are sorely lacking.
But a plan now in the works could change the land for years to come and provide a place for a group of neighborhood children to finally call home.
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For generations, the kids of North Greenwood played at a Russell Street park called Phillip Jones Field.
Near the old Pinellas High School, an all-black school closed during desegregation, Phillip Jones was one of the neighborhood's only open fields. In 1985, it became the home field for the North Greenwood Panthers, a youth league for football players and cheerleaders. On busy days, it was hard to tell that the place had been a dump decades earlier.
Three years ago, state tests showed that the field's history was more of a problem than had been suspected. About a foot down, landfill debris such as metal and glass had edged closer to the surface. The field was closed, with no reopening date in sight.
That left the Panthers, about 270 kids between the ages of 4 and 15, effectively homeless. On Saturdays, the team played at high schools such as Countryside and Clearwater Central Catholic. Coaches packed the team's concession stand — fried chicken, hamburgers, soda — into the back of a U-Haul truck.
Over three seasons, the travel has become daunting for young players and their families, some of whom don't have cars. And though attendance has stayed high, Panthers president Joe Marshall said, the children regularly ask when they can go back to their neighborhood field.
"We're alive and well. We just need the keys to a new house," Marshall said. "If we had a wish list, that would be on the top."
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In September, a group of volunteers on Clearwater's parks and recreation advisory board penned a letter to the City Council pleading for movement at Jack Russell. "Now is the time to revisit the site," board chairman Ray Shaw wrote.
Winning Inning, a local baseball academy, has been using a field there, but the rest of the land has stagnated, with the stadium long dismantled. In 2008, the city used the site — once a playing ground for legends such as Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays — for overflow parking for a speech at Coachman Park by Sarah Palin.
Last week, parks and recreation director Kevin Dunbar brought the board's idea to the City Council. He said the city could build two multipurpose fields, parking, fencing and lighting on the site as a home for the Panthers. It would cost the city up to $600,000, potentially less with grants or payments from the Penny for Pinellas tax.
North Greenwood leaders say that could be a win for the neighborhood, though they still stick by the larger need of better jobs and housing.
"We're not abandoning those ideas," said Jonathan Wade, a board member and director of A Spiritual Change, a nonprofit job-placement firm in North Greenwood. "We just don't want to get bogged down in red tape wondering about what might happen while the kids have no field to play on."
Officials are now researching the field proposal, and it will probably take months before the council decides on the idea. Already some members have questioned the cost, considering next year's dismal budgetary forecast.
Others, such as council member John Doran, said the project could be a crucial way to earn "long-term dividends" through the lives of North Greenwood children.
"This makes a statement to the whole community," Doran said, "that we care about the people who live there, we care about their children."
Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or [email protected]