FIELDS OF DREAMS ON HOLD Pandemic Delays Expansion of Pooler Athletic Facilities
In response to Pooler’s increasing population growth and the subsequent need for leisure activities and venues in recent years, the city’s recreation department stepped to the plate and helped push through a plan for expanded facilities near the YMCA. The project has been thrown a curveball by the pandemic, however. Recreation, while important during this unprecedented time, has been restricted due to the threat of the virus. Projects such as this one have been delayed, while participation numbers are down after several years of significant growth.
Before Tanger Outlets spearheaded a growth explosion some five years ago, the sports complex on Rogers Street was more than adequate to see to the recreational needs of Pooler residents. When the outlet center opened, however, Pooler became a popular destination and attracted an influx of new residents. Schools, stores, homes and apartments sprung up seemingly overnight. Recreation wasn’t far behind; five baseball/softball fields, a soccer field and stadium opened up near the YMCA.
Just as the city was challenged to meet the demand for other services, recreation faced a similar task of providing adequate faculties for a growing population that wants to take advantage of the area’s abundant sunshine and temperate climate throughout the year. SPLOST funds were approved to build five more baseball fields, tennis complex, playground and, possibly, a fitness trail. These would expand a complex that includes five baseball/softball fields, soccer field, and a stadium that recently had artificial turf put in and hosts
Then came the pandemic. “There’s so much on hold,” said Leisure Services director Hugh Elton, who has served in that capacity for 13 years. “We’re still working on drainage and infrastructure. So much depends on COVID recovery.” The Coronavirus has also impacted recreation programs. These include youth basketball, soccer, baseball, softball and T-ball and adult basketball and kickball. Elton said all the programs shut down in March. “We’re slowly opening them back up,” Elton said.
The cancellations included a Buddy Curry football camp and Tracy McGrady basketball camp. Elton noted that the number of participants in the recreation programs is about 50 percent compared to last year; in 2019, according to Elton, there were an estimated 3,100 youngsters and 1,500 to 1,600 adults satisfying their athletic cravings through the Pooler Recreation Department.
“We’re trying to get everything back on track,” said Elton, who’s working with a number of agencies to safely reopen recreation programs. “We’re coming up with a plan to start in the fall. I’m cautiously optimistic things will return to normal.” Elton is also in charge of the city’s senior center, which he described as very active. The pandemic has curtailed much of that activity, however.
We can’t get in there,” said Elton, referring to the restrictions that have been implemented to protect the seniors, considered high-risk, from COVID-19. “The center director has been running errands and delivering meals." He added future plans, calling for renovating the current senior center or building a new one.
Elton has witnessed tremendous growth on the recreational front during his 13-year tenure. He credited city leadership with recognizing the importance of recreation and being committed to upgrading facilities to keep up with the demand brought on by an expanding population. Elton, for his part, shares that commitment in his role as Leisure Services director. “I enjoy providing services that make people happy—enjoying the parks and programs,” Elton said. Now if the pandemic would just exit the field, Elton and many Pooler residents, both young and old, could go back to focusing on balls and strikes, passes and receptions, goals and headers. And a mask is something only worn by two individuals behind home plate.
Steven Chang is ready to return to the field of play.
The Pooler resident played and coached rec football, basketball and baseball and served as umpire. Given the sports void brought on by the pandemic, Chan has focused on his son and daughter, who compete in travel ball and cheerleading, respectively. He’s planning on coaching his son’s upcoming youth football team.
“I’m glad to be back at it,” Chan said. “My son and I throw the football around in the yard and with neighborhood kids. We’re trying to stay active.”