Two years ago, the Slidell Youth Soccer Club gave up hosting the Camellia Cup, a fall tournament that typically brought 64 to 70 teams and their families to town for a weekend of competition.
The private, volunteer-run organization was finding it hard to draw participants with facilities that lacked the bells and whistles teams now expect, club President Jay Albe said.
That’s one reason his league supports plans to build a facility in eastern St. Tammany Parish like Pelican Park in Mandeville, where about 12,000 people can be found on a typical Saturday.
Creating such a recreation magnet is the goal of the relatively new St. Tammany Parish Recreation District No. 16, which covers Wards 8 and 9, excluding Slidell itself and the Oak Harbor/Eden Isles area.
Residents were the driving force behind creating the district, according to board President Sharon Hewitt, and the Parish Council acquiesced in 2009. But it wasn’t until late 2011 and early 2012 that the district’s seven-member board was appointed.
Since then, members have put their energy into developing a master plan that will be made public at a meeting at 6 p.m. Aug. 28 at the J.V. Burkes & Associates office, 1805 Shortcut Highway.
Board members hope to put a tax initiative on the ballot in the spring to cover the estimated $20 million cost of such a park. A site has not been selected.
Albe applauds the district’s efforts to include input from the private, volunteer-driven sports leagues that have been the mainstay of youth recreation in the greater Slidell area.
Slidell itself, whose Recreation Department has a budget of about $1 million, provides $10,000 to each of five groups, including the soccer club. The youth leagues, some of which own their facilities, also use city parks and gyms. The Slidell Youth Soccer Club, for example, leases fields from the city along Spartan Drive and also uses fields on property in Kingspoint owned by the Fritchie family trust.
But that land is likely to be sold someday, Albe said. And families want more for their children. They play games at Pelican Park and come back saying, “Why can’t we have something like this in Slidell?’’ he said.
The desire to provide the best facilities for the children they serve, along with the goal of hosting tournaments that Albe described as boosts for the local economy, is behind the soccer club’s support for the planned park. Two of its former board members also sit on the recreation district board, he said.
But Albe acknowledges that a big change creates some uneasiness and fear of losing control.
Jason DiMaggio, president of the Slidell Youth Basketball Association, said he and his entire board plan to attend the Aug. 28 meeting at which the recreation district will unveil its master plan so they can later discuss the pros and cons of what is presented.
“I’m not opposed to the district; however, I still have a bunch of concerns and questions,’’ he said. He also questioned whether voters would be willing to pass a tax.
DiMaggio pointed to the dedication and long hours that volunteers have put into programs like the Youth Basketball Association, which has about 500 young players signed up for fall basketball. The current approach to recreation has worked well for the community, he said.
He also wonders if the recreation district’s plans would reduce participation in sports clinics and other businesses that people have established in the Slidell area.
Hewitt, the recreation district’s president, said the district isn’t trying to displace or replace anyone. “We’re not trying to take over their work, just trying to fill in the gaps,’’ she said.
Hewitt said involving the community from the beginning was intentional. Board members talked to leaders of many other recreation districts to ask how they succeeded in building parks and facilities. They found that those that sought a tax from the outset, to pay for a master plan as well as construction and operational costs, tended to fail because people didn’t know ahead of time what they would be getting.
Board members also hope to persuade Slidell to become part of the new district, although Hewitt said she would not characterize feedback from city officials as encouraging.
Slidell Mayor Freddy Drennan said recreation is important to the city and he’s not opposing the district’s plans or ruling out Slidell’s future involvement. But he has not seen the master plan, he noted. “There’s a whole lot more I’d like to know about it,’’ he said.
With the help of agencies like the Northshore Harbor Center and the St. Tammany Tourist Commission, the district raised $65,000 to pay for the master plan. It hired Colorado-based recreation consultants Ballard*King and Associates and a local architectural firm, Fauntleroy Latham Weldon Barré.
The board held two public meetings last month to share demographic information showing that the area can support a facility like Pelican Park. Going forward, board members plan to attend as many civic and homeowner group meetings as possible to further spread the word.
Getting voter support will be the next challenge. St. Tammany Recreation District No. 10 in Covington recently suffered its fourth defeat in trying to pass a millage, despite vocal support from city officials and efforts to enhance the chances of the 4-mill tax by redrawing the district’s boundaries to eliminate less supportive areas.
Hewitt said her board has talked to District 10 officials and thinks that better communication was needed. She noted that voters approved the bond issue sought by the Covington-area district but voted down the tax needed to support it.
The Slidell Youth Soccer Club leadership plans to ask its members to vote in favor of what the district puts on the ballot. Albe said he sees a Pelican Park-type facility as the missing ingredient that will help growth in eastern St. Tammany, which already has open land and the convergence of three interstate highways. While passing a tax isn’t easy, Albe sees a park as a quality-of-life issue. The only downside is that the facility is probably five or more years away from becoming a reality.
As for Hewitt, she said Pelican Park started in just the same way 25 years ago and now has 32 athletic fields, two gymnasiums and a multipurpose building, the Castine Center. In addition to sports, it offers hundreds of classes, many of them free.
“We want to build a park that provides a little something for everyone,’’ she said.
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.