The Rain Game
His face tells the story, one that many here in Miami know by heart. Marcos Fernandez's expression is a combination of disappointment and dismay, frustration and longing. You feel it more than hear it. Half-sentences like "I just thought ..." and "What were they ..." drop from his tongue as Fernandez surveys the recently refurbished soccer field at Miller's Pond Park in West Kendall. Behind the four goals are long dirt ditches where the sod has been torn up for a second time by the county. The project was supposed to be done in November. It finished in December. Then it rained. The water swelled up at the edge of the fields like never before, and the ground was unusable for two days. Fernandez and the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) club he runs for the Miller's Pond area had to cancel their opening ceremony for the fields and postpone the Miami-Dade County championships. And Fernandez's face began to take on that look. People like him seem to realize that in Miami, even well-intentioned projects fail. Especially well-intentioned projects ...
"They were telling me this wouldn't be a problem," he laments, once more speaking of the ponds that formed following the rain. As he talks, a half-dozen of the kids he coaches -- all under ten -- warm up at one of the smaller playing areas adjacent to the two big fields. "Right now it will rain [for] one hour," Fernandez predicts, "and we'll be out of practice for two [more] days." The dirt ditches behind the goalies are for a new, more sophisticated natural drainage system. The old areas didn't "percolate" -- meaning, naturally breathe -- enough to allow for the water to disperse, county Park and Recreation Department officials say; the department admits it made mistakes it is returning to fix. It's not the first time this has happened.
Since 2000 Miami-Dade County has spent $75 million renovating parks. This year it will spend another $50 million. The money comes mostly from park impact fees and the Safe Neighborhood Parks Act in 1996 and goes into construction of new parking lots, rec rooms, concession stands, sidewalks, basketball courts, picnic areas, hockey rinks, baseball diamonds, stadium lights, and, of course, soccer fields. Soccer is quickly becoming the sport of choice in the county. Just listen to the Spanish and Portuguese being spoken on nearly every corner and you'll know why.
The county's Park and Recreation Department realized a few years ago that it needed to start catering to the growing influx of Latinos. "We're extremely aware of the growth and popularity of soccer," says Barbara Falsey, chief of planning and research at the department, "and trying, pretty aggressively, to begin to meet that demand." With that in mind, the county started revamping some of its 282 facilities and 12,500 acres. Even before that push began, Park and Rec tried to transform Ruben Dario Park in West Miami-Dade, a combination baseball-soccer field, into a soccer-only site. After a few months, Ruben Dario was finished, literally: One person who played fútbol there said, "You might as well have brought your snorkel and fins." Park and Rec officials said Ruben Dario was an experiment. An experiment gone awry.
Then the county went to McMillan Park in West Kendall, presumably to tackle the notorious "Lake McMillan" that covered a large part of the grounds every time it rained, and fix the other half of the field, which had drainage problems as well. A year and a half and $460,000 later, the situation is worse. "It's disconcerting," says Audie Thompson, the head of the local Optimist Club that sponsors youth soccer at McMillan. "I wish the entire project had resolved all our problems, [but] they're still ongoing. The old 'Lake McMillan' is still not draining properly." And a new "Lake McMillan" has formed where the original project was done, which Thompson suspects may have something to do with insufficient funds to grade the project correctly in the first place.
That's 0 for 2. You'd think Park and Rec would have learned. But then came Miller's Pond.
The original project for Miller's Pond didn't call for new fields. The fields were never the best -- they had divots, dirt patches, and swells that threatened the youngsters' ankles -- but they were good enough to house the ever-popular AYSO league. "It could rain all day, and you could play the next," Marcos Fernandez says, because the field's natural drainage system worked. The project began as more of a nuisance issue. The neighbors were tired of soccer players parking in their driveways, changing clothes in their front yard, and doing number one behind their bushes. Given this, Park and Rec decided to fund a new rec house, bathrooms, sidewalks, a parking lot, and stadium lights. When they finished those, Fernandez and AYSO proposed resodding the soccer fields. Park and Rec came up with the money ($180,000), then hired a contractor -- the lowest bidder who fulfilled all parts of the contract -- and set to work.
The contractor, Leadex, lifted the field and began putting in new "fill," an 80/20 mixture of sand and dirt, in August. Then it flattened the fill with a steamroller. But almost immediately Fernandez noticed problems. Even before the company laid down the new Bermuda Tifton 419 -- a soft, golf course-like grass that allows the soccer ball to roll farther -- Fernandez sent an e-mail to the department asking about "ponding" in some places. "Is there going (sic) to provide some fill or dirt before the sod is installed?" he queried in October. "Was (sic) the elevations verified? I remember pointing these spots out at the pre-construction meeting. I am really concerned about the ponding water."
Both Park and Rec and the builder assured Fernandez they were doing everything they could with the available money. "We have a whole group of people who think they're engineers," says Paul Carey, who oversees the projects. AYSO's Fernandez is not an engineer, he's an administrator in the school system, and he accepted their word. Besides, he wanted to get his kids back on the field. Fernandez is more of a soccer dad than a soccer coach -- a dedicated parent who spends every bit of his free time with kids teaching them a game that he never even played himself. He was anxious, the kids were anxious; but the field wasn't ready.
"One of the problems we had was they were pushing us, 'Get this done. We need to play. We need to play,'" explains Carey. Leadex filled the field enough to put a half-percent grade on it. Most fields need a one-percent grade from a peak in the center of the field to drain properly. The plan also suffered because Park and Rec put up a sidewalk on both sides of the field that was higher than the field itself. The result was what Fernandez calls a "fishbowl" effect. In addition Park and Rec ignored the drainage problem that Fernandez pointed out prior to sodding. Park and Rec's Carey says the department didn't have enough money to do the job perfectly and admits, "This was basically an error on our part." Carey and Park and Rec have seventeen similar soccer field projects in motion, some of which are in their final stages, and the 29-year veteran of the department promises, "We're learning as we go."
Carey insists the mistakes are not costing the department much money. He says the contractor at McMillan is finishing the field at his own expense. And the department is using "in-house" workers to repair the Miller's Pond error at a cost of $5000.
But all of this is small consolation to Fernandez, whose long face will only stretch as summer approaches. "When it rains," he says, "I cringe."
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