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NFL, Bucs' gift will be park's gain

Two lighted football fields will be built at Bartlett Park, thanks to a $100,000 grant from the NFL and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Crews already are surveying. Construction is expected to start in spring and be complete by the 2005 football season, said John Green, the city's capital improvements director.

The fields will be home to the Silver Raiders youth football program for youngsters 6 to 15 years old. But during nonfootball months _ essentially January to July _ the grounds will be available for such sports as soccer, rugby, lacrosse and flag football, Green said.

One of the newer youth football organizations, the Silver Raiders formed in 2000. About 500 members who play on several teams organized according to age, weight and ability. Typically, each youth team has its own set of cheerleaders.

The fields are part of the city's overall, $3-million improvement plan for Bartlett Park, the city's oldest recreation center, cut from a swamp during the 1930s as part of Depression-era federal programs. It is situated between 18th and 22nd avenues S, between Fourth and Seventh streets.

A revamped tennis center is the plan's major element. Three new clay courts are under construction and a fourth is being renovated. More new courts, all lighted with shade structures and water fountains, are on their way this year.

"Less than a year from now, we'll have 14 brand-new lighted soft courts at the center," Green said.

A new, bigger clubhouse to replace the rickety old one is in planning stages. Its construction is contingent on funding, Green said. When the two-story clubhouse is built, its two adjacent stadium courts also are in line for revamping. Eventually, the center will boast 20 lighted courts, four soft-surface and two hard.

Much of the new clubhouse will accommodate the tennis center's successful youth program, which combines tennis lessons with homework help, reading enhancement and computer instruction. It draws scores of youngsters.

Plans call for the clubhouse to include 7,500 feet and include a classroom and more space for a computer lab.

The nonprofit Tennis Foundation of St. Petersburg runs the center and will administer the NFL/Bucs grant.

The grant was part of $2.5-million distributed for youth fields nationwide this year. Part of the NFL's Grassroots Program, the grants are meant to improve youth facilities in underserved neighborhoods. St. Petersburg also received one of the grants two years ago to build new fields in Childs Park for the Childs Park Junior Rattlers program.

During the past few years, the city has financed football fields in other ways on 31st Street S and at Meadowlawn Middle School.

The Bartlett Park fields are being built on old softball fields, once a venue for such adult softball groups as the Liniment League, but infrequently used in recent years.