BROOKSVILLE — Last May, Paul Whelan had a concern.
Now, with hard work and private money, he is translating that concern into improvements of a park that, not too long ago, the county planned to close.
Ernie Wever Park, the main venue for youth sports in and around Brooksville, is being renovated and expanded under an agreement reached between Hernando Youth League, its affiliate, Brooksville United Soccer, and Hernando County.
The agreement is the brainchild of Whelan, the vice president of Brooksville United.
The concern that inspired him?
The lack of space for soccer teams to play at their home park. Not only does soccer season overlap with football season, which cuts field time for athletes in both sports, but a 400-square foot area outside of these fields was unused.
"We wanted to attract more tournaments to the area and help the local leagues with added field space," Whelan said. "It seemed like a win-win."
He has spent many hours at the park in the past two weeks, seeding fields, spreading sand and supervising a private contractor. Working with Brooksville United president David Shrader and HYL president Mike Walker, everything is coming together.
"We've had the luxury of seeing this through from a dream stage to a planning stage to a reality stage," Shrader said. "By this spring, we'll have better use of the entire (park)."
The expansion will help the local leagues and the community. Ernie Wever has hosted tournaments in the past, including last season's Dixie Baseball state championship, but the park was never equipped for larger soccer events. Because of the two new fields that are being added, HYL has already attracted two upcoming soccer tournaments.
"I'm sure the state baseball tournament's success opened some eyes," Walker said. "I'm sure that (tourism) is the county's interest in approving this plan. It seems like it would help everyone."
The Sunshine Cup tournament will include teams from Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties and attract 200 to 300 people per day in mid February. An agreement has also been reached with the Regions Cup, a week-long state tournament that will attract up to 100 teams.
Along with these events, the county should see an economic boost as hotels and restaurants in the area provide for these visitors.
"We're very excited, and we can't wait until they have everything done," said Tammy Heon, the county's tourism development coordinator. "We do expect to have a positive impact on tourism, and we are blessed to have people in the soccer groups that are invested in the community and their children's lives."
As for Brooksville United, the benefits are obvious. New fields will allow the league to thrive by holding coaches clinics in the summer and possibly start a summer league to register year-round players. Since the organization is funding renovations, increased concessions will help it renew funds as part of the proposal.
It was the local soccer league that brought in licensed contractors to start construction, spending $6,000 out of its own account. To open up the facility, two practice baseball fields have been changed to accommodate the expansion. Two backstops and the pitchers' mounds have already been knocked down along with the removal of all bases.
"We signed an agreement with the county to start opening up some space," Shrader said. "Everything has moved pretty quickly."
Last year, the county planned to close Ernie Wever because of cutbacks in the parks maintenance budget. HYL agreed to charge participants $3 fee to help maintain Ernie Wever and other parks the league uses. The expansion should increase the number of players and therefore the amount of maintenance money it raises.
The proposal to finish the renovation was approved by the Hernando County Commission Tuesday. HYL had previously met with commissioners individually and all were behind the project.
"It was smooth sailing," Whelan said. "We've received nothing but support, and I haven't heard of any resistance to what we're trying to do."
Once it is completely approved, the fields will need to be finished by Feb. 18, the first match scheduled for the Sunshine Cup.
Derek J. LaRiviere can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 584-6337.