For Carroll County families with talented young athletes, it’s a ritual they have down pat. Awaken before sunrise, pack the kids into a car overflowing with sports gear and snacks, and head off to Howard County or Baltimore or the D.C. metro area or Pennsylvania for a long day or weekend at the latest soccer or lacrosse or field hockey or basketball tournament.
The Long Term Advisory Council group tasked with looking at arts and recreation in Carroll concluded that there is a “huge need for a large multipurpose sports complex” and that within said complex “there must be a large indoor facility as well as several artificial turf fields outside,” noting that “Carroll County must come up to speed with surrounding counties.”
Why the huge need? Why is it a must? According to Union Mills Homestead Executive Director Jane Sewell, who represented the LTAC arts and rec cluster in making these recommendations to the Board of County Commissioners last month, they were trying to help answer a few questions at the heart of the county’s future. “Why would people want to live in Carroll County and what would bring more young families to the area? What are young people looking for in a community and what will they want in the future? What is there to do in Carroll County?”
They concluded a multiuse sports complex, as well as an amphitheater to host entertainment acts, could play a pivotal role in answering such questions.
Carroll families have been taking their kids — not to mention their money — to surrounding counties and farther to participate in sports for decades as Howard and Baltimore counties are loaded with multipurpose sports complexes, such as Western Regional Park in Woodbine, Blandair Regional Park in Columbia, Honeygo Run Regional Park in Perry Hall and Meadowood Regional Park in Lutherville to name just a few of the complexes with multiuse fields in the area. That doesn’t include such regional facilities as Prince George’s Sports & Learning Complex in Landover or the Spooky Nook facility in Manheim, Pennsylvania, that boasts the largest indoor sports facility in North America.
Carroll? In an era when most high schools built in Maryland over the past 25 years have included at least one artificial turf field, usually for use by the high school as well as the community, there is still not a single public-use turf field in the county, let alone a sports complex to rival any of those listed above that could keep Carroll families at home for more practices and tournaments (or bring in the revenue youth and high school sports tournaments can generate).
Sewell referenced the nearby Reisterstown Region Park and SportsPlex during her presentation. The indoor facility can accommodate ice hockey and indoor soccer among other sports the surrounding area of the park includes an artificial turf field with lights, two grass fields with lights and several baseball and softball diamonds.
Two years ago, it appeared such a complex could be in Carroll’s future. The City of Westminster put together a task force to seek out viable ideas for the nearly 200-acre site of the former Wakefield Valley Golf Club the city had purchased in 2014. Pinkard Properties ultimately presented a proposal to the Mayor and Common Council that would include sports fields and indoor athletic space. At one point, an amphitheater was on the table, too.
But the public response to having such a facility was overwhelmingly negative, said City Councilman Tony Chiavacci, who noted that such projects are always supported by families during the time they have children at the age when such a complex would be beneficial but are generally rejected by those without kids or those whose kids have aged out of youth sports. Many voiced concerns over light pollution from the LED lights planned for the fields, as well as the noise from people using the fields. Others brought up worries about additional traffic and trash.
Chiavacci said that a few years earlier Westminster had looked closely at putting in a pair of artificial turf fields at its city park. But there wasn’t quite enough space.
He said the Wakefield Valley property is perhaps the only centrally located site in Carroll that could accommodate such a sports complex, but that Westminster couldn’t begin to finance it, already in the midst of a wastewater treatment plant project that is the costliest it has ever undertaken, and that it would likely take a city/county/state partnership for such a complex to be built with the city’s contribution perhaps involving allowing it to be built on its land with much of the financing coming from state grants.
Westminster is not the only option for a sports complex, of course. In Hampstead, the former North Carroll High School, which was closed in 2016, and its surrounding campus that includes a stadium and baseball and softball diamonds, remains the property of the county. Additionally, $500,000 has been earmarked toward the construction of an artificial turf field on the site if matching funds from the private sector can be raised.
Commissioner Dennis Frazier, R-District 3, said the commissioners still think that public and private funding can come together.
He envisions public and private funding would be required for a large-scale project such as a a sports complex or a large-capacity entertainment venue. Frazier said they have discussed whether existing resources at North Carroll — such as a gym, locker rooms and auditorium — could make it a good site for this type of facility.
“Would it have to be upgraded? Probably so, but you've got the beginning of a multiuse structure," he said. When the LTAC Arts and Recreation cluster presented the idea of a multiuse sports complex, he said he was encouraged because it was similar to what they had already been discussing.
North Carroll isn’t the only location candidate for this type of facility, he said, but the commissioner said he believed a facility of this type is something that could be in the future for Carroll County. A wrestling coach, Frazier said an outdoor artificial turf field for soccer, football and lacrosse could be converted to an indoor facility with a season dome or “bubble” to make it viable for indoor soccer and indoor lacrosse as well as wrestling and basketball.
“The possibilities are whatever you can think of,” Frazier said. “The major thing is the funding. … It’s something I think we should be working toward. Will it happen this year or next? Probably not.”
But, he said, it’s something the commissioners can be looking at and planning for now.
That’s music to Dave Dolch’s ears. Dolch, the supervisor of athletics for Carroll County Public Schools, calls himself a “major advocate” for a multievent facility, which he calls “a need, not a want.”
Dolch and the seven high school athletic directors in Carroll have had to deal with some 500 postponed or canceled games since March 1 thanks to the combination of a record year for precipitation and no artificial turf fields, he said. Between planning and rescheduling, transportation and fees paid to facilities outside of the county, “it adds up,” Dolch said.
Such a multisport complex would also solve perhaps the county’s worst high school sports dilemma: What do you do with the nearly 500 athletes who participate in indoor track and field? Currently, they don’t have any good options for training and certainly no place to hold a meet.
Dolch said he has spoken with commissioners, with Economic Development Director Jack Lyburn and others and believes a private-public partnership could — and should — make such a facility a reality in Carroll.
“It’s desperately needed, not just for the high schools, but for rec programs and adults,” said Dolch, a one-time Iowa resident who quoted “Field of Dreams” to assure anyone wondering whether a sports complex would get much use from county residents as well as those coming in for tournaments from outside of the county. “I promise you: ‘If you build it, they will come.’ ”
During her LTAC presentation, Sewell discussed the incredible growth the recreation councils have undergone, demonstrating the clear desire for recreation among Carroll residents. For example, she said, 30 years ago, rec councils contributed 93,000 volunteer hours. Today, that number is more than 550,000 hours. Also, three decades ago, rec councils raised some $173,000. Today that number is more like $5.5 million. There are now 28 county parks with programs for seniors, dog parks, a planetarium and online interaction that will increase dramatically.
Maintaining and expanding existing walking, hiking and bike trails also are important.
“Physical activity is critical for all ages,” Sewell said.
Unlike recreation and arts, the cluster expects transportation to change more drastically in the next 30 years due to technology.
“We’re talking drones, we’re talking driverless cars. It’s going to be a very different thing,” Sewell said.
Their recommendations ran closer to the present, and they focused on adding bike lanes, something for which young people have expressed a desire.
“There is always going to be a need for transportation for the elderly, the disabled and people who do not own cars or have the means to rent a car. ... There’s still going to be a need for public transportation for certain groups of people. That’s not going to change,” she said.
The cluster’s recommendation for an entertainment venue touched on a desire to bring revenue and tourism into the county as well as provide entertainment to Carroll residents. Music lovers in the county are familiar with the preplanning and the travel it takes to go see a big act live. And in an unusually rain-soaked year, event organizers are well aware that no indoor venue exists at the scale to hold the county’s largest events, such as the Maryland Wine Festival and the Maryland Microbrewery Festival. Both were cancelled or postponed in 2018 due to weather concerns.
“If you have Kenny Chesney coming in to entertain and if you’ve got 5,000 people that want to come and listen to him, but you don’t have any undercover seating, it isn’t going to happen,” Sewell said.
Would acts come to Carroll rather than large metropolitan areas Baltimore or D.C.? The cluster thinks so if the venue is big enough and nice enough to justify ticket prices for big acts.
"Carroll County's one of the safest counties in the state and wouldn't it be nice to think you could come to a huge venue, a huge concert in Carroll County and feel safe, and feel like you could walk around and eat dinner and go to the theater,” Sewell said.
In the course of researching for the presentation, Sewell spoke to young people, both those who live in the county and those who have chosen not to.
Though recreation and arts may not seem as life-changing as public safety or health care, both play a big role in keeping people in the county, she said, especially young families.
"A lot of young people before they're married and even when they're first married, like to live in urban centers, but the common thread from all of them, just about, was, ‘When we have children we don't want to raise them there. We want to raise them in a suburban setting,’” Sewell said. “There's your opportunity to get them to come to Carroll County. But you want them to have something to do. We've got the best schools, we’ve got the lowest crime, all these great things. But we can do better."