Jim Wolf is president of the Westport Soccer Association. A star and 2-year captain on the Staples High School team (Class of 2001), he has perspective on local athletic fields as both an athlete, and now a sports organization leader.
He hopes this piece brings heightened community awareness to the capacity and condition of Westport fields, while explaining the current and expected impact on local youth sports programs.
The Westport Soccer Association delivers the town’s youth rec and travel soccer programs. Its enrollment exceeded an average of 1,700 players during the most recent fall and spring seasons, making it the largest youth sports organization and one of the largest 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organizations in Westport.
The WSA is driven by the community. More than 200 parent-volunteers generously donate their time, with oversight from a board of 9 volunteers.
Similar to other youth organizations in town, participation levels have increased significantly in the post-COVID years.
As our fall enrollment grew 30% compared to 2020, our need for fields expanded as well. This fall we will field 31 travel teams, and anticipate that number to increase as the current pre-K and rec players filter up into the travel program.
Our youngest age group for travel currently has a record number of 6 teams on the boys’ side, underscoring the growth.
Each additional travel team requires an incremental 4 to 5 hours of field time per week on average. At this time, current field capacity does not accommodate future levels of enrollment. Many Westport kids unfortunately will not be able to participate unless field capacity increases.
This dynamic has been shared across the town’s youth sports programs, and existing fields have become over-utilized and unrested. As a result, conditions on the grass fields deteriorated significantly over the most recent spring season.
The WSA has ongoing discussions with the town focused on our growth and concerns. Town officials and the Parks & Recreation Department have been supportive, collaborative and creative as field constraints have become more pronounced. They continue to dedicate a considerable amount of time to field allocation and maintenance, and communicating with the programs.
The collective understanding is that there are currently limited opportunities to bring new fields on-line, and inadequate financial resources provided for by the existing Parks & Rec budget to combat the impact of the current levels of usage.
Despite these challenges, P&R is putting forth a tremendous effort, given a suboptimal set of circumstances. The WSA appreciates their time and attention.
Hundreds of young athletes march in the Memorial Day parade.
Matters are further complicated by the Long Lots Elementar School construction project. The WSA is in the early stages of planning with the town for the fields at Long Lots to go off-line during the school’s construction period.
The WSA will use Long Lots fields for a combined 60+ hours per week this fall. Losing these fields will make an already unsustainable dynamic much worse. But the WSA will be solution-oriented, and do what it can to maintain our enrollment levels and ensure that no other town program is disproportionately impacted.
We acknowledge that much of the public discussion regarding the Long Lots School project has focused on the future of the Westport Community Gardens. But it is of equal importance to consider the effect on hundreds of families and children who will be affected not only during construction, but in perpetuity if adequate space is not allocated to safe, maintanable fields.
The Long Lots School construction will have a temporary but very meaningful impact on field availability for the WSA, as the primary users. Fields are a semi-fungible resource allocated by P&R. Time slots will need to be shifted, and other programs will be impacted as well. All opportunities to expand field capacity and improve quality (ranging from lighting to turfing to irrigation) should be quickly assessed and acted upon.
Among many other more important factors, including education specifications, cost and timeline, it is appreciated that the criteria for the Long Lots School Building Committee’s decisioning is in part based on the “impact to current site elements,” and fields are being assessed with P&R’s involvement.
That said, the hope is that (i) the approval committees will appropriately consider opportunities to improve field capacity and quality on the Long Lots campus post-construction along with any trade-offs, and (ii) the town begins planning/allocating budget now to enhance its field inventory in anticipation of the Long Lots fields going off-line during the construction period.
The WSA is hopeful that all interested parties will bring a spirit of collaboration and a willingness to compromise to discussions. Any solution should not be a win/lose situation for groups, but about what works best for the entire Westport community.
(Full disclosure: “06880” executive editor Dan Woog is a co-founder of the Westport Soccer Association, and non-voting emeritus member of its board.)
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