SANTA MARIA, Calif. - The City of Santa Maria is planning to create more field space for soccer and other sports.
In addition, a project is in the works would bring lighting to several parks that are currently without it.
It's a two-part solution to a growing need in Santa Maria, finding more fields for kids and adults to use, especially for soccer. It comes as a planned multi-sports complex remains on the drawing board.
"The Parks Commission has been actively seeking information from the community on field space for the last three years and the demand is for turf field space, so that's what we're trying to address," said Recreation and Parks Director Alex Posada.
To create new sports fields, the city is planning to transition existing baseball/softball diamonds at Minami and Simas parks to a fully-covered grass surface.
"What we've seen over the years, especially in our softball program, is a decline in our participation at all levels, so right now we accommodate all of our softball programs at the Hagerman Sports Complex. That seems to meet the majority of the needs," said Posada.
Posada said once the diamond at Simas Park is covered in grass, it would still be used by Southside Little League.
The conversion of fields at Minami and Simas parks would provide Santa Maria with additional field that would be used by soccer, as well as other sports teams in need of a large size grass surface.
"We've had an interest surge in rugby and lacrosse in the areas," said Posada. "There are leagues organized that are serving the Central Coast, and so a lot of those teams use our facilities for practice. We also try to closely with the other athletic programs, Hancock and the high schools, if they need field space, we try and be able provide space for those programs."
In addition to those changes, Santa Maria has another idea to create more field time.
"The city has had an opportunity to participate in is a new lighting evaluation for all of our athletic facilities," said Posada. "The City Council voted a few weeks back to go ahead and authorize staff to work on a plan that would develop the financing to light some of our fields that are unlit now and to improve lighting at many of our fields around the city so that we can get more use for the public."
The lighting project would be a partnership with PG&E and Southland Energy.
"We're talking about a multi-million dollar project citywide," said Posada. "This will allow us to become more energy efficient and use the savings from that energy efficiency at our facilities to pay back the cost of the project."
If approved, new lighting would be installed at Crossroads, Adam and Oakley parks.
"It would give us an additional 600 hours that we would have available during Standard Time when we're not able to provide lighting, after 5 p.m., 5:30 p.m., when it begins to get dark, so we're trying to look at ways to mitigate not having enough field space by upgrading the fields that we do have in the interim until we're able to get a sports complex built," said Posada.
Improved lighting would also be installed at other existing sports facilities, such as Atkinson Park and the Paul Nelson Aquatic Center.
At Atkinson Park, an artificial surface is also planned.
"Right now, we have natural grass," said Posada. "It's a maintenance and water consumption issue with regular grass, so we're hoping to move this project to artificial turf, improve the lighting at that location also and be able to make that field available for many more hours during the week."
The lighting project is still in the planning stages and would not be completed until at least a year, likely longer.
"City staff is meeting with financial advisers on how to move forward in funding the project and what the feasibility is to actually the project and whether or not the estimated paybacks are actually there," said Posada.
The field conversion at Minami Park is happening this week. On Wednesday, dirt was removed from the infield and transferred over to Rodenberger Park.
The project is independent of the lighting plan and is being funded in-house.
While the city is moving ahead with the field conversion, not everyone in the city believes it's a hit.
"It breaks my heart," said Billy Melena, while watching a tractor move dirt at Minami Park. "II've been here 10-to-15 years coaching my kids and I just ended on Saturday and there it is, it's gone. What else can we say? End of an era."
The longtime area softball coach doesn't believe it's a good idea to remove the two baseball/softball diamonds.
"You don't want to practice if you're a baseball or softball team if you have no dirt and if they take the dirt, where are the girls going to practice," said Melena. "Where are the girls going to play? Where are the boys going to play if there's no dirt? Where's the softball games going to play? Where's the baseball games going to be played?"
Melena added other diamonds have been removed by the city going back several years.
"It's not the history that we're concerned with, it's the future," said Melena. "It's the future for the kids. If they keep taking the fields out and saying everyone can work together, why can't everyone work together and keep the dirt?"
While Posada said fields at Hagerman and Miramonte should be able to meet the needs for baseball and softball, Melena disagrees.
"If you try and go get a field over there (Hagerman), they are renting out to soccer," said Melena. "They're renting out to rugby. There's softball fields that are used for different sports. There would be adequate space if they used it for just softball and baseball."
Melena is part of a group of people that he said is planning to protest the recent decision to remove the dirt infield at Minami Park.
"We're not as vocal as soccer, but we're here and we're not going to go away," said Melena. "Just because they tear up a field doesn't mean we're going to go away. We're going to demand a field for ourselves."
The group is planning to protest at the Santa Maria Recreation and Parks Department on Monday, Oct. 7 at 4 p.m.
Posada said he understands not everyone is on board with the changes at Minami and Simas parks, but the Recreation and Parks Department is doing the best it can to accomodate the needs of all the various sports in the city.
"We certainly want to work with those groups to try and come up with plans that are effective, so that not only do they get to use that they need, but also that the rest of the sports community gets the time that they need," said Posada.