Ball field issues mount for BYBSL

BLYTHEWOOD – There’s no clear plan in place for new ballfields in Blythewood, but town and community recreation leaders say there’s a desperate need. Meanwhile, changes to county maintenance plans for the existing fields have raised additional concerns.

According to the Richland County Recreation Commission, in an emailed response to questions from The Voice, the county reviewed its ball field contracts with community leagues in 2018, prompting a review of its processes for leasing facilities, and made the following changes.

They decided on a maintenance schedule of dragging ballfields three times a week, transferred responsibility for state inspection of the concession stands to the leagues, and decreased the facility lease amount from 10 percent of league registration fees to 5 percent.

“This was an intentional decrease to provide the leagues with funds for concessions and field preparation,” according to commission officials. “We are currently working with a couple of the leagues that have faced issues with securing permits for concessions. We recognize that concessions are a large revenue stream for the community leagues.”

Kevin Allen, President of the Blythewood Youth Baseball Softball League (BYBSL), says this has created a challenging situation for the league, which he says is not equipped to do the maintenance that used to be handled by the county, which included more frequent dragging and lining of the fields.

Now the league is looking for a solution. Due to current limitations on equipment and storage, Allen said, that would require someone to drag and line fields at both the Blythewood and North Springs Park locations several days a week, transporting the equipment each time.

“I would’ve rather paid them double their lease fee, and them do the work, than us have to do it as volunteers,” he said. “Every parent would rather pay $5 extra per kid to play and know the facilities are taken care of – and pay the county 15 or 20 percent.”

The maintenance changes, he said, aren’t the only curve ball that was thrown to the league this season; they were originally going to play at the Kelly Mill Sports Complex but were moved to North Springs Park at the last minute.

According to the county recreation commission, the Kelly Mill complex was leased to the Dentsville Baseball League because site improvements at Polo Road Park were not complete.

Blythewood league and town officials say the big-picture issue is the need for more ballfields. Allen said there’s a lack of information about county plans for recreation, but – when it comes to fields for Blythewood – perhaps the league could help.

“Maybe we’re unique as a league, but we want it to be a partnership,” he said. “We’re willing to take on some of the work to help them. We’re willing to fund some of the things if we need to. If I need to go out and fundraise…to build stuff or help, we’ll do it.”

What he’d like to see is for the Town of Blythewood to develop a plan for a ballfield complex with four or five fields – a project that would require 40-50 acres and cost $3.5-$5 million – which he says could help pay for itself over time with revenue from tournaments, corporate sponsorships, and recreational league fees.

The way he sees it, a combination of town, county, and private contributions – in the form of land and money – could help get such a project off the ground. Fields could also be developed for other sports that are growing in popularity, such as lacrosse and soccer.

Town officials say they have met with county officials many times over the years about the need for ballfields. More immediate than a big sports complex, they say, is the need for more fields to use for recreational game play.

“Blythewood Park – that opened in the 70’s. It’s the same baseball fields that I played on as a boy, and we’ve never done anything with them. Never expanded them, never tried to add to them – and our population has grown,” said Brian Franklin who pledged two years ago when he ran for council, to do something about getting more fields. But so far, no progress has been made.

“Blythewood has been overlooked, and our population has grown faster than pretty much anywhere else in the county.”

Back then, he said, the town would have maybe a dozen ball teams in a good year. Now there are more than three times that many – and teams are practicing anywhere they can find an open lot. The program has experienced exponential growth in the last few years, and with hundreds of new homes planned for construction in Blythewood, the growth is expected to continue.

“When you only have three fields and you have 36 [or more] teams and you’re trying to give each team an opportunity to practice twice a week and play two games a week, it just becomes physically impossible to be able to do that with that many children and only three fields,” Franklin said.

“Let Blythewood take charge of our own destiny and buy us some property and put some fields out there to expand the capacity of what we’re doing.”

But after years of discussion, the impasse appears to be largely financial. County recreation officials recognize the need for additional fields in the northeast part of the county but say they don’t have the funding. Town officials say the county should be doing more.

Mayor J. Michael Ross put it pointedly at a recent meeting of the Blythewood Town Council: “We feel like the stepchild of Richland County.”

The town has floated a lot of ideas – incorporating ballfields into a larger economic development project, building fields on a county-owned parcel adjacent to the town, using the soon-to-be-former site of Bethel-Hanberry Elementary School, developing two more fields on the vacant land at Blythewood Park.

A decade ago, a volunteer drafted a site plan to add two fields at Blythewood Park. This project – for which no one offered a current cost estimate – would increase the total number of fields at the county-owned park from 3 to 5. 

The county recreation commission said it doesn’t have the funding. However, according to the county’s e-mailed response, “If the Town of Blythewood wanted to invest in the development of new fields and/or a potential complex, the Commission would be happy to work with the town to do so.”

As it stands, the county says it’s a willing partner but lacks the funds. Town and league officials have expressed a willingness and ability to raise money for ballfields, but they have not coalesced around a unified plan or goal.

Everyone seems to like the idea of more ballfields for Blythewood, but it’s hung up in the details: Who will pay for it? Who will own it? Who will maintain it? Who will step up and take leadership on the issue, and transform it from talk into action? When will someone start making plans?