Special athletes to get center


Maryland - birthplace of the Special Olympics - is on its way to becoming the first state to open a major training facility for disabled athletes that will include an Olympic-size pool, sports training center, track and ball fields.

The $20 million sports complex, planned for completion in 2005, will be built in East Park in northern Anne Arundel County, a site chosen for its proximity to Interstate 97. Special Olympics officials said they want the training center to be convenient to the state's 10,000 athletes, coaches and volunteers.

"We think it is fitting that the state in which Special Olympics was founded would have the first sports training facility for athletes," Mark P. Huston, a member of the Special Olympics Maryland board of directors, said yesterday. "We are really excited about it."

Board Chairman Col. David B. Mitchell, who is superintendent of the Maryland State Police, and Patricia Krebs, Special Olympics Maryland president and chief executive officer, reached a nonbinding agreement this week with Anne Arundel County, which owns the property. County Executive Janet S. Owens signed the document late Wednesday.

A legal agreement between the parties is expected to be signed in the coming months.

"Isn't this exciting?" Owens said yesterday. "I think it will just be phenomenal."

The complex will house Special Olympics Maryland offices, now in Columbia, as well as conference rooms and a distance learning center that would use computer and video conferencing technology to reach athletes and coaches who can't travel.

The gymnasium will offer a weight room and a sports medicine clinic. Outside, plans call for soccer and softball fields, a 400-meter track and two tennis courts.

The sports complex will be shared by county residents and Special Olympics athletes. Special Olympics coaches and volunteers will be offered training at the center, and leisure activities such as golf and bocce will be offered to the disabled athletes.

Although Special Olympics groups in other states are seeking similar arrangements, Special Olympics Maryland's deal with Anne Arundel came through first, said Tom Waite, senior vice president for sports programs with Special Olympics Maryland.

"From a community perspective, it is a real, true partnership," Waite said. "It is a neat fit."

Huston, Waite and Anne Arundel County Parks and Recreation Director Dennis Callahan are expected to present the agreement - a memorandum of understanding - to state legislators in Annapolis this morning. At the same meeting, they plan to provide a description of the project, as well as funding needs.

Plans call for the facility to be built with private, county and state funds, said Callahan, who added that Anne Arundel County has contributed nearly $1.2 million to the project, including the cost of the land.

County officials bought the property several years ago with a pool for county residents in mind and have done some preliminary planning.

Callahan has requested $500,000 - for project planning - from the county for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Owens and local members of the General Assembly said they hope Gov. Parris N. Glendening will include money to match the $500,000 in his 2003 supplemental budget.

"We have been working on this for three years," said Del. Mary Ann Love, a Glen Burnie Democrat and chairwoman of the county's House delegation. "We have talked to the governor and he seemed responsive to the project, but with what we have going with the money crunches, we don't know."

A bill to secure the $500,000 for the project has been co-sponsored by at least 20 legislators, Love said.

"It's a great opportunity for Maryland and it would put us in the forefront," said Del. Michael E. Busch, an Annapolis Democrat. "It's tough to argue against this one."

Special Olympics Maryland is planning to launch a capital campaign soon to raise its $8 million share.

The pool facility, which will be managed by the county, is expected to cost about $12 million. The athletic fields, track and gymnasium, which will be managed by Special Olympics Maryland, are expected to cost about $8 million.

Anne Arundel County will maintain ownership of the property, while Special Olympics Maryland plans to lease the land for the training center and sports fields.

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