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No Place to Play

POLK COUNTY -- Brady Black recently moved from Salem back to his hometown of Dallas. He's already pining for one of the perks of the bigger city -- the ease with which you could find a competitive game of basketball.

None of Polk County's cities currently run traditional parks and recreation sports leagues for adults.

Photo by Pete Strong

None of Polk County's cities currently run traditional parks and recreation sports leagues for adults.

August 21, 2012

POLK COUNTY -- Brady Black recently moved from Salem back to his hometown of Dallas. He's already pining for one of the perks of the bigger city -- the ease with which you could find a competitive game of basketball.

"You could go to The Hoop every other day, or in the morning they had open gym and you could play as long as you wanted," Black said. "Five dollars a day or $20 a month."

He's at Dallas City Park's blacktop court on this particular afternoon for some three-on-three. Friend Nathaniel Mello said it's a good spot because at least one court is almost always open.

Aside from the annual Dallas Summerfest 3-on-3 tournament, little in the way of organized adult basketball is available to residents of Polk County.

Photo by Pete Strong

Aside from the annual Dallas Summerfest 3-on-3 tournament, little in the way of organized adult basketball is available to residents of Polk County.

The caveat is "you have to already know people or have friends who play ball in order to get a game," Mello said. "If you don't, it's tough.

"Tuesdays and Thursdays, there's games from 8:30 to 11:30 at night at the high school ... that's about the only other thing."

Black, 21, is wearing a shirt advertising Hoopla, an annual tournament held at the state capitol in July he's played in. It's cool that Summerfest brought back its own basketball competition in Dallas after a hiatus a few years ago, he said, but added there should be more.

Black could drive back and forth more regularly across the river to play. Gas isn't cheap, though, he said.

"There's not a lot for adults in town," Black said. "Pretty much everybody I went to high school with who is still here ... we all go to Salem to play, because that's the only place to get an organized game.

"That kind of sucks."

Adults have few options

You hear the mantra often from kids, wherever you live -- "there's nothing to do here."

That's debatable in Dallas and Monmouth-Independence, where youths are concerned. Between nonprofits, ministries and libraries, even the cynical must admit there's a respectable list of recreation sports or enrichment classes available for youths.

But what about for grown-ups?

"There's not much," said Megan Johnson of Dallas, a Dallas High volleyball and basketball coach. An avid softball player, Johnson drives to Albany, McMinnville and Salem three or four days a week for coed league games in the summer.

Megan Johnson of Dallas, an avid softball player, drives to Albany, McMinnville and Salem three or four days a week for coed league games in the summer.

Photo by Pete Strong

Megan Johnson of Dallas, an avid softball player, drives to Albany, McMinnville and Salem three or four days a week for coed league games in the summer.

"It's kind of sad," the 26-year-old said. "One of the reasons I coach is it's the only way to really stay around sports close to where I live."

None of Polk County's cities run traditional "parks and rec" style sports or programs for adults. Except for a short window for Monmouth in the late 1990s and early 2000s, leaders in the towns can't recall a time when they have.

To be fair, there is a softball league run by Dallas-area churches. There used to be a basketball program until a few years ago, too.

Local senior centers offer classes that aren't technically closed to non-senior citizens. Organizations or businesses occasionally hold educational workshops. But those are exceptions and not the rule.

Josh Brandt, who runs Crush Wine Bar in Monmouth, played college baseball in Portland after graduating from Central High. He returned to Monmouth in 2008 and promptly got involved in an over-18 baseball league in Salem.

"It would be nice if there were a few more things to do ... I'm talking (for the) 18 to 35 age," said Brandt, who's 28. "I don't know if I could find a pickup basketball game here on a regular day."

The benefits of recreational programs for adults aren't lost on local leaders as an amenity -- they get it. Still, you need money and facilities.

"I have hope that someday we can get there," said Sandy Teal, a Dallas parks and recreation board member. "But realistically? We're limited by our resources."

Opportunities used to exist

Believe it or not, there actually were good ol' days for adult recreation in Polk County.

Take Monmouth, for example. Seventeen years ago, citizens passed a serial operating levy -- of about 50 cents per $1,000 of assessed value -- to fund a traditional parks and recreation program. In 1997, the city spent about $55,000 on recreation personnel and programs.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Monmouth had a levy-funded parks and recreation program with activities including an over-30 basketball league, canoe and kayak sessions, dog training classes and kung fu.

Photo by Pete Strong

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Monmouth had a levy-funded parks and recreation program with activities including an over-30 basketball league, canoe and kayak sessions, dog training classes and kung fu.

The result? The city had its own over-30 basketball league. It scheduled a full slate of activities ranging from kung fu and dog training classes to kayaking and canoeing sessions.

"We had a brochure that went out four times a year, with things to do that coordinated with the seasons," said Jim Protiva, former Monmouth parks and recreation director.

Protiva said a survey of residents showed about 18 percent regularly participated, "which is decent."

Monmouth's levy lasted only two years, because of changes to state property tax laws in the late 1990s. Protiva resigned when budget cuts severely reduced his position in 2002. Today, he heads Newport's parks and recreation department.

In Dallas, churches and local groups ran an adult basketball league for many years until the 2000s. In 1964, Loren Faxon, who owns Starlite Lanes bowling center, started a slow-pitch softball league for men.

There were maybe six teams to start and games were played on a field in front of the Academy Building, Faxon said. The league grew and sparked the first slow-pitch tournament in Oregon.

"They were pretty popular," he said. "You would have 400 people out watching the games ... it was a huge draw."

Faxon ran the league until the late 1980s, then handed the reins over to local pastors. It's now a church league with 13 teams.

"It's mostly by word of mouth, there's no advertising," said William Latham, softball organizer and coach. "For people who don't want to drive to Salem, it kind of fills a void."

Programs come at a cost

There are countless case studies espousing the economic, health and general livability benefits communities enjoy by being close to recreational services. That doesn't make paying for them any easier.

Protiva, who still lives in Monmouth, said a problem for local cities when he worked here that remains today is lack of a funding mechanism and a relatively low tax base.

In Monmouth, almost 26 percent of the city's 1,430 acresare owned by government entities and are exempt from municipal tax rolls.

"It then falls to the participant and most of them can't afford to pay out of pocket for the full cost of a service," he said. "Ad valorem (property) taxes alone are not enough."

For example, Newport's parks and recreation department has a budget of nearly $1.4 million. It receives a huge boost from hotel/motel tax revenue in one of the largest tourism centers in the state.

Megan Johnson of Dallas high-fives a teammate during a women

Photo by Pete Strong

Megan Johnson of Dallas high-fives a teammate during a women's league softball game at Wallace Marine Park in Salem Friday.

Parks and recreation districts between multiple agencies are an answer to the funding problem, as are private-public partnerships. In Tillamook County, the YMCA runs a regional recreation service.

There was an attempt at this in Monmouth and Independence in 2008. Almost 60 percent of voters, however, shot down a bond levy of 50 cents per $1,000 of assessed value to build a new recreation center to be run by the local YMCA. A recreation district measure also failed.

"Timing was everything then," said Joe Penna, chief petitioner of that measure. "When it went to voters, the economy took a nose dive."

Polk County Administrator Greg Hansen said the county government has never been approached about partnering on recreation programs. And in the foreseeable future, given budget cuts, "it's not a priority," he said.

Monmouth and Independence are squeezed for facilities for youth sports at certain times of the year -- they occur at parks and schools. Dallas has the same setup, but fares better, with a dozen softball and baseball fields and its aquatic center.

During basketball season, however, youth programs must compete with school district athletics for the space, Teal said.

"We have third-graders practicing at (8 p.m.)," she said. "There's not enough gyms."

Rip Horsey is the director of Western Oregon University's Health and Wellness Center facility. He also supervised Spokane, Wash.'s aquatic center and adult sports program from 2000 to 2004. He said it's hard attracting users without solid facilities or staffing, especially when you're paying to play. Horsey added that recreation services are usually the first to go when budgets are tight, especially adult programs.

"There's a different value placed on kids programs," he said. In Spokane, "the general fund would help pay for youth sports -- we had to profit to keep adults sports alive, there were no subsidies."

Proximity to Salem or Corvallis may also be a barrier, said Shawn Irvine, Independence's economic development director, adding some locals might not mind commuting to those cities for the larger programs they offer.

"We would have to make sure we could generate enough of a customer base to make programs fly here," Irvine said.

Timing may be right

Despite all this, "parks and rec" for adults may not be just wishful thinking in Polk County.

Independence is building a road to its unfinished North Riverfront Ballfield complex off Highway 51, which will feature nearly 50 acres of softball, baseball and soccer fields.

Officials will plant grass this fall and the fields may be ready for play by next spring. The city wants to contract with recreation providers to manage their use, Irvine said.

"We want to use them in a way that there's youth programming and some slow-pitch softball and soccer leagues for adults," Irvine said. "We want to do more in this direction, the question is how?

"Working with nonprofits seems the easiest route."

Dave Brautigam, sports coordinator for the city of Dallas Parks and Recreation Department, is attempting to develop basketball or coed softball leagues -- or both -- for spring and summer of 2013.

Brautigam said it might be through the city, though he also plans to contact church organizations to see if their program could be expanded upon.

"You would need to have six to eight teams to make it worthwhile," he said. "I do think there's enough adults out there for it ... there's definitely a need."

The parks and recreation board has also mulled triathlons or half-marathons when the Rickreall Creek Trail is finished.

Megan Johnson said staging basketball or softball league tournaments would bring teams into Dallas and "get some of our businesses going.

"I wouldn't mind playing here," she continued. "And seeing a more competitive atmosphere for this town."

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What Do You Think?

Do you think more recreational opportunities (organized sports programs and leagues, continuing education classes, etc.) are needed for adults in Polk County? Would you be willing to pay for such opportunities via an increase in property taxes (a bond measure to create and finance a countywide park and recreation district)? Does the lack of local recreation opportunities negatively affect our quality of life in Polk County? We'd love to hear what you think. Share your views by commenting on this story via the Itemizer-Observer's website, www.polkio.com, and clicking on the story headlined "No Place to Play." You can also make a comment via a posting available on our Facebook page. We will publish a selection of reader comments on the Voices page of the Aug. 29 I-O.

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