Playing the fields |

Playing the fields

Kathy Heicher
Swimmers excercise in the lap pool at the Avon Rec Center Last Friday.

Requests for financial assistance with recreation projects were typically met with firm rejection and an adamant declaration by the county commissioners that the county was “not in the recreation business.”

Times have changed.

This spring, the county will lay sod on a trio of athletic fields at the Berry Creek Fifth property in Edwards. And in recent months, there’s been some brain-storming among the commissioners about development of an indoor recreation facility at Berry Creek – a project estimated to costs up to $12 million.

County funds were also used to “jump-start” the development of recreation fields at the Sopris Tree Farm in El Jebel. And for nearly 10 years, kids and adults in the Eagle Valley have swarmed to the athletic fields at the Eagle County Fairgrounds near Eagle. The fields are located on county-owned land, but the Western Eagle County Metro Recreation District is the developer and manager of the facility.

So the county, willingly or not, is involved in recreation. But just how does the county’s broader involvement in the recreation business mesh with the services now being provided by the various recreation districts and towns in the valley? Another outstanding question is whether those recreation providers can overcome the often touchy politics of multi-jurisdictional projects and together the cooperative effort needed for regional recreation programs.

Maturing community needs

Eagle County Commissioner Tom Stone, now starting his second term in office, says the increasing demand for recreation facilities, and the county’s changing attitude, are signs of a maturing community.

“As population grows, the demographics change as to why people live here, and what services they want. There’s more recognition of the need to provide for year-around residents,” says Stone. “I don’t know that (county involvement in recreation) was necessary before.”

In years past, Stone says, the county missed opportunities for developing passive and active recreation because officials wanted to avoid ownership of fields and facilities.

County Administrator Jack Ingstad says the county’s entry into recreation began with the recreation field development at the county-owned Sopris Tree Farm in the Roaring Fork Valley. He describes the $800,000 the county put into athletic field development there as “jump-starting” a local recreation program.

That scenario has panned out. Roaring Fork Valley voters recently approved formation of the Crown Mountain Recreation District, which eventually will levy taxes and take over operation of the facilities.

“We’re gradually weaning ourselves off recreation over there,” explains Ingstad.

Still to be resolved is who will operate the facilities at Berry Creek. While the county, as the landowner, owns the land, it doesn’t have experience running recreation programs.

Dancing with the rec district

Technically, there are two special districts in the county dedicated solely to providing recreation services. The Vail Recreation District’s boundaries parallel the town of Vail’s boundaries; and downvalley, the Western Eagle County Metropolitan Recreation District covers the area from Homestead in Edwards west to Glenwood Canyon and north to Bond, Burns and McCoy. Both entities run programs used by people who may live outside district boundaries.

These days, WECMRD is more of a player in the valley recreation scene than ever. After years of operating on a slim, $500,000 annual budget, the district recently received voter approval for a tax hike and bonding capabilities that will make some significant capital spending possible. District directors have pledged to spend about $1 million each for recreation facilities in the Eagle, Gypsum and Edwards communities.

WECMRD has already committed money to a covered ice rink and outdoor swimming pool, currently under construction in Eagle; and the district is working with the town of Gypsum on plans for an indoor recreation facility in that community.

Although Berry Creek isn’t technically within the WECMRD borders, the district does bump up against the county-owned land. Rick Beveridge, who sits on WECMRD’s board of directors, says the Berry Creek project is the only feasible site in Edwards for the district to get involved in midvalley recreation on a large scale.

“We really want to serve the needs of the taxpayers there. The same goes for Eagle and Gypsum,” says Beveridge.

For months now, lawyers for the county and WECMRD have been negotiating the details of an intergovernmental agreement that would spell out the terms for WECMRD handling the operation and maintenance of the fields at Berry Creek. Progress has been slow.

WECMRD officials say they’ve been attempting to schedule a face-to-face meeting with the county commissioners for months.

“As an elected board, we intend on meeting with the commissioners to discuss the overall philosophy of the project, to see how WECMRD can spend our money most effectively in a partnership,” says Beveridge. “We want to talk with the county on a big scale, get involved with planning, to be sure the dollars are spent on what taxpayers want up there. That’s how we approach every entity.”

At an impasse?

Ingstad says the county wants to get the agreement signed, then sit down with WECMRD’s directors. WECMRD Chairman Chris Williams, however, says his board wants to meet with the commissioners for a 20-minute discussion about Berry Creek’s future before signing the agreement.

Last week, County Commissioner Arn Menconi broke the impasse by showing up at a WECMRD meeting.

“I think we have his cooperation. It was very helpful that he was there,” says Williams.

Menconi describes the meeting as “very positive,” saying the county and WECMRD can now get down to the “real issues.”

Ingstad says the two entities are close to an agreement that would give responsibility for managing the midvalley fields to WECMRD for a two-year period. The reason for the short term of the agreement, he says, is that a number of entities – ranging from WECMRD to the Vail Rec District to private clubs – have expressed an interest in using the Edwards fields.

“The county would like to say to WECMRD, “build a trust factor, so we’re comfortable that everybody is being served, and you’re comfortable with us,” says Ingstad.

The county has asked WECMRD for a $500,000 contribution for one soccer field that will be sodded with artificial turf for longer seasonal use.

“Those fields should be the first example of cooperation among users, so we have maximum utility of fields paid for by general county tax dollars,” says Stone.

Bob Trautz, acting director of the Vail Rec District, says his district and WECMRD already cooperate on programs and facilities.

“We will certainly be there to help wherever we can. The ultimate goal is to provide quality recreation in the valley. That’s why most people move here,” says Trautz. “We have the same common goal.”

John McCaulley, chairman of the Edwards Metro District, says he sees the recreation districts as the logical operators of facilities at Edwards.

“Why re-invent the wheel? Why not encourage cooperation and consolidation?” asks McCaulley.

This story first appeared in the Eagle Valley Enterprise.

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