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‘We have to get creative’: Fort Mill area rec programs struggle to meet growing demand

It’s 8 a.m. Saturday when boys pour into the Banks Street Gym in Fort Mill. Another batch arrives an hour later, and yet another an hour later.

They churn through like clockwork on the hour, 7- and 8-year-olds replaced by lunch time with 9- and 10-year-olds. It’s happening at Banks Street and at the town Recreation Complex. Teen boys leaving, young girls coming in after them. It takes five hours. It takes three hours more on Monday, still another on Tuesday.

“We’re going to do the same thing we did last year,” said Brown Simpson, parks and recreation director in Fort Mill. “Make it happen.”

Fort Mill has more basketball players on its roster than the entire NBA, and that’s just the boys program. As of Nov. 2, there were 644 players signed up for five age groups. The boys program runs age 7-18.

Three of the five groups had more players than the maximum allotted when the town set up registration, leaving a waiting list. Another had one open slot. At least one group had a waiting list before the normal registration period ended Oct. 31.

Add another 206 girls age 7-15 (one of three groups had a wait list) and 149 co-ed players age 5-6 (three of four groups had a wait list). The town total is 999 players.

Why so many?

While spring and fall seasons offer soccer, football, baseball, softball and other sports not only in town but in Tega Cay, basketball is the main draw in winter and all to Fort Mill.

“It’s our winter sport,” Simpson said. “It’s the only one that we offer in the winter.”

Spring or fall seasons can bring up to 1,400 players with more town fields than gyms. Playing on indoor courts means using the same space.

“The difference is you’re dealing with one sport in the winter,” Simpson said.

This season isn’t the first requiring Brown and his staff to “get creative.” There were 950 players last year. Along with the complex and Banks Street sites, the town partners with Fort Mill schools to use its courts.

Last season some age groups had Saturday games on the hour from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., sometimes later. Friday night games dot schedules. The larger groups typically split into two divisions, with teams of the same age never playing until tournament time, if then.

“We just try to offer a quality program,” Simpson said. “You just adjust with the numbers. It’s all about getting creative and using what we’ve got.”

As populations in Fort Mill, Tega Cay, Indian Land and York County grow at rates seldom seen anywhere in the state or region, comes more children.

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As of mid-2017, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates Fort Mill has 4,249 children age 5-18. Tega Cay has 2,543. Those numbers only estimate within municipal borders. Much of Fort Mill and Tega Cay also fall in unincorporated parts of the county.

York County has an estimated 48,492 children in the same age range, compared to 14,623 in Lancaster County and 5,427 in Chester County.

“That’s a lot of people,” Tega Cay parks and recreation director Joey Blethen said, before echoing Simpson. “We have to get creative.”

Tega Cay doesn’t offer winter sports, but it offers a slew of spring and fall sports, along with camps and a flag football league each summer. Recent fall and spring season each drew up to 1,700 players.

“We use it to plan for the spring season,” Blethen said of winter.

Both Tega Cay and Fort Mil have fields of their own, but rely on partnering with the school district.

“Without that field space we wouldn’t be able to accommodate,” Blethen said.

In Lancaster County

Fort Mill and Tega Cay aren’t the only communities accommodating growing recreation needs. Lancaster County voters on Tuesday approved a $19 million bond aimed at recreation improvements. Unofficial results Wednesday showed more than 52 percent of nearly 31,700 voters supported the bond.

“Staff is really excited about it,” said Hal Hiott, county parks and recreation director. “We’re going to be adding facilities now.”

Included in that bond is an addition to the Indian Land Recreation Center and building a Harrisburg Road Soccer Complex, together totaling more than $9 million. It also includes a soccer complex in Heath Springs, first phase construction on the Lindsay Pettus Greenway and renovations to the Barr Street Auditorium.

Last spring, Hiott called the Indian Land and Harrisburg sites “imperative” because of the explosive residential growth in Indian Land.

Hiott said Wednesday morning he hoped the vote “might be a little more positive.”

“It passed, so we’re happy to move on,” he said.

This year, Lancaster County will have 825 basketball players. The county has had to cap teams and practices due to gym space. In Indian Land, where the bond will at least double the size of its gym, issues are magnified.

“The growth has happened so quickly up here that we’ve gotten behind,” Hiott said.

Hiott said it will be well into spring before there is money for planning, bids and construction for the Lancaster site.

“It’s not going to be an overnight process,” he said.

With soccer sites able to host more than just soccer, Hiott sees the new space in Indian Land drawing outside tournaments.

“Facilities like that cause economic impact,” he said, “and we feel like that’s what it’s going to do.”

Recreation’s future

In Tega Cay, the game changer will be the $12 million, 61-acre Catawba Park on New Gray Rock Road, adding baseball and multipurpose fields, plus other public amenities.

“That’s the big thing that we’re targeting right now, is getting Catawba Park off and running,” Blethen said.

Plus, the park will mean instead of the city renting fields, it will be renting out its own fields. Other parks like Comporium fields in Fort Mill, one under construction in Lake Wylie and new sites in Rock Hill see tournament bookings as generating revenue.

“It’s a big part of the plan,” Blethen said.

Fort Mill is building a sports park in the Waterside at the Catawba subdivision, adding baseball fields to replace some at the Complex. The town took ownership of the Complex in the summer. Expanding the gym space there is possible.

“Expansion is down the road at the complex,” Simpson said. “It is in future plans.”

Even with non-municipal leagues like the Fort Mill YMCA at Baxter, Victory Sports, ROAR Sports in Rock Hill and others serving hundreds of players each, cities and towns have plenty to do. Lining up volunteer coaches and officials is an issue even with smaller leagues. Simpson and his staff started sending out team rosters Wednesday. Games start at the end of the month.

Hiott, like his colleagues in nearby fast-growing areas, know it all too well.

“My next couple of years are going to be busy,” he said.

John Marks: jmarks@fortmilltimes.com; @JohnFMTimes
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