Responding to a falling number of participants in municipal youth athletics programs, Kenner City Council members have approved a measure that would allow the city to lease more of its playgrounds to private sports clubs and leagues.
The city still intends to offer youth sports at playgrounds it doesn’t lease out, said Councilman Dominick Impastato, who sponsored the measure. But the legislation removes rules dictating where children must play based on their home address, and it even welcomes youth from outside Kenner’s city limits to participate in organized sports at municipal playgrounds, which wasn’t previously the case.
“We (did) this because there’s a problem,” Impastato said. “We (had) to take some action to try and reverse that trend.”
According to figures provided by Mayor Mike Yenni’s administration, Kenner’s youth sports programs have experienced declining participation. In 2014, there were 12 percent fewer boys basketball players than in 2003, 57 percent fewer girls basketball and boys baseball players, 55 percent fewer softball players, 12 percent fewer cheerleaders and 6 percent fewer soccer players.
Kenner’s population hasn’t dropped at the same rate as the participation levels in some of the sports offered by the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, Impastato said. So officials determined that children are leaving the city to play sports elsewhere, especially with teams that — in exchange for membership fees — offer more sophisticated coaching and wider competition than might typically be available in Kenner’s low-cost municipal programs.
“Parents of today are willing to bring their kids where they think there are the best opportunities to play,” said Michael Quigley, Kenner’s chief administrative officer.
The city’s answer was the legislation approved by a 6-1 vote Thursday night.
Councilman Gregory Carroll cast the lone dissenting vote, saying he didn’t think the measure would affect all playgrounds equally.
The legislation also directs municipal playgrounds to schedule as much of their activity as possible between Monday and Thursday to avoid conflicts with weekend activities scheduled by private operators leasing playgrounds and potentially to draw young athletes who have other commitments on weekends.
Quigley and Impastato said they realize that relaxing the geographical restrictions at city-managed playgrounds might prompt coaches to go to extreme lengths to recruit talented players for their teams. Each said the city would try to prevent that from happening by using administrative measures, such as by having children declare their playground from the outset and not letting them transfer to another without good cause.
Other new rules already had been implemented, though they had not been codified in an ordinance.
Since 2009, Kenner has leased Sal Plaia Playground in the 1800 block of Williams Boulevard to the soccer club now known as Louisiana Fire Juniors; Westgate Playground in the 2500 block of Maine Street to Metro Fast Pitch Softball Association Inc.; and the sand volleyball complex off Joe Yenni Boulevard to Coconut Beach Volleyball LLC.
In general, the leases’ terms require the private operators to maintain the facilities and make any necessary improvements, which Kenner would own should the agreements end. The city receives a portion of the seasonal fees charged by the leasing organizations — $5 per player from Louisiana Fire Juniors and Metro Fast Pitch, and $20 per team from Coconut Beach.
Thursday’s legislation designates Sal Plaia Field, Coconut Beach and Westgate Playground as “sports academies.”
The city could assign that same status to other playgrounds through cooperative endeavor agreements with operators, who the ordinance said should offer “top-level coaching ... for participants interested in maximizing their potential.”
“We’re meeting a demand for specialized recreation that people are leaving the city to get,” Impastato said.
Quigley said it’s possible Kenner may soon solicit statements of qualifications from firms wishing to operate playgrounds. He declined to name any specific sites that are candidates to be leased out as sports academies .
Impastato said Butch Duhe Playground on 10th Street, adjacent to Louis Armstrong International Airport, has had declining participation and could be attractive to an academy-style baseball club.