New study questions athletic field's future

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Via Houma Times
By JOHN DeSANTIS Senior Staff Writer​

Terrebonne Parish officials say they have faith a planned regional sports park will be completed and successful, pointing to planned land swaps and hopes for re-establishing some state financing as the basis of their belief.

But a study released Wednesday by the Houma-Terrebonne Chamber of Commerce suggests otherwise, and cautions that without changes in how Terrebonne Parish manages its recreation scheme overall an incomplete “Field of Dreams” could turn into a muddy nightmare.

“It is a complicated problem in need of a long-term solution,” said Hank Babin, chairman of a task force assembled by the Houma-Terrebonne Chamber of Commerce, which has studied the issue for more than a year. “We need to look at this as a community together and decide how we are going to address it. That is the actual motto of the Chamber of Commerce, uniting our community for a better Terrebonne. That is what our entire mission and goal is as an organization.”

The Chamber’s report comes on the cusp of a fractious time for government and recreation officials. Council members are seeking a state attorney general’s opinion currently to ascertain how much control they can claim over recreation districts, which are independent entities unto themselves and control individually their shares of $10 million annually brought in from millages charged within the borders of each. In several communities recreation district board members have told parish council members that they don’t want to see consolidation of districts or leveling out of millages, which they believe would hurt their ability to maintain neighborhood parks and recreation centers.

The sports complex is the progeny of Terrebonne Parish Recreation District 2-3, being built on land purchased by the parish.

Conceived when crude oil was more than $100 per barrel, the park project is summarized in a 2013 master plan. Work proceeded until state budget shortfalls re-ordered priorities in Baton Rouge. Playing fields have been sculpted and infrastructure like plumbing has been laid. But parking construction has yet to begin. Dugouts and concession stands live on planning sketches, rather than alongside Highway 311.

Parish President Dove continues to lobby for the project at the state level, but even its staunch supporters say decades could pass before the prior level of assistance from the state might be restored.

So far the parish has spent $2.9 million for the land on which the sports park project sits. Recreation District 2-3 has dedicated $1 million so far and is planning on putting more in for parking areas so that fields can be utilized. A one percent hotel tax has generated nearly $3 million. So far the state has kicked in nearly $3 million in capital outlay dollars.

That all adds up to just over $8 million, well short of the $23 million the master plan budget calls for.

“Everybody thought there was a lot more money coming in sooner than later,” said Babin, and parish officials agree. Moving forward from this point on exacerbates the view, as Babin sees it, with costs such as maintenance not even taken into account, along with the nagging problem of the $24 million budget being in 2013 dollars rather than taking in the current state of dollar values and the shrunken local economy.

Parish Planner Chris Pulaski has confidence the project is moving forward, noting that placement of sewer and water lines as well as fields has progressed. Parking lots are needed if the fields are to be used, Pulaski said, and District 2-3 is working towards constricting them. Part of the district’s plan is to sell all or part of land it owns on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard currently used as a softball park, to raise more capital for the regional project.

The Chamber assessment paints a dire picture of the elephant that lurked in the parish council chamber during discussions nearly two weeks ago, when council members discussed the potential for changing the recreation district management strategy.

An ordinance under consideration includes a provision that would allow parish council members to remove recreation board members with or without cause.

The sports complex is also not the only big-picture project under construction in the parish. Improvement and expansion of a park and community center at the Houma airbase, like the complex, has no dedicated financing.

“The Bayou Country Sports Park … should be recognized to serve our entire parish and should not be the responsibility of a single recreation district,” the Chamber’s report states.

That realization caused the Chamber’s study group to look at how recreation is set up overall in Terrebonne Parish, resulting in its support for a change in how recreation districts are set up.

Under the current scheme of recreation districts charging varying millages, Babin and other backers of change maintain, unequal and disproportionate shares of revenue cannot be the norm.

Under the current system, according to an example provided by the Chamber, three different houses similarly assessed, in proximity to the same neighborhood park but in different districts, are taxed at different rates ranging wildly from the $50 to $160 range.

Chamber officials like Babin were not aware that parish council members would bring up issues regarding the recreation districts in July. They were planning on releasing the Chamber report in September. But an increase in the volume resulted in a decision to speak out sooner.

Also involved in the dialogue is a new Recreational Steering Committee, set up by the parish council, which met for the first time last week. Babin is among its members.

State Rep. Jerome Zeringue, another member, was unable to make the first meeting of the recreation steering committee because he was in Washington D.C. trying to secure better terms for federal flood insurance for the people of the state and his district. But he is among those who have confidence the steering committee will help find answers to the Field of Dreams funding issues as well as helping throughout Terrebonne.

“There is the potential to do that,” Zeringue said, noting the state’s current objections to funding most parks during tough fiscal times. “We have had commitments made that the state is going to support. They have committed funding prior to this decision. We are working to get that and if we can, bring consensus and a good approach as we operate on the parish level.”

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John DeSantis
Senior Staff Writer John DeSantis is a veteran journalist and author who grew up in New York City, but has spent most of his career in the Bayou Region. A specialist in criminal justice, he enjoys boating and historical research.

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