"Billy: No good's gonna come out of us fighting all the time.
Daisy: Well, how do you know that?
Daisy: What do you know about fighting?"
--Daisy Jones and The Six
A lot has been said in this election cycle about everyone getting along and having a cordial experience during Apopka City Council meetings and on local social media. I'm all for cordiality, but when things get heated during important issues, that's not a good reason to withdraw.
A perfect example of conflict resolution took place in the last couple of weeks when a local youth sports organization and the Apopka Parks and Recreation Department butted heads before ultimately finding resolve.
The Central Florida Soccer Club is a youth organization based in Apopka. In a typical season, it has between 350 and 400 members ages 2-19. CFSC develops young athletes on and off the field through soccer. Its mission is to meet each player where they are in their development and help them achieve the next level – to realize their potential and to ignite the passion for soccer in every child, regardless of their background or financial status, by providing equal opportunities to learn, play, and grow in a diverse and inclusive Central Florida community.
The CFSC began its 2024 season on Monday as scheduled, but it almost didn't happen.
The Northwest Recreational Complex is an impressive facility. Some have said it's among the state's four or five best sports complexes of its kind.
According to the City website, "The complex has over 180 acres of land including The Apopka Amphitheater, Toddler and Youth Playgrounds, .9 Mile Walking Trail, 2 Flag Football Fields, 2 Lacrosse Fields, 3 Basketball Courts, 4 Multi-Purpose Fields, 4 Pavilions, 4 Sand Volleyball Courts, 4 Tennis Courts, 6 Baseball Fields, 6 Full Sided Soccer Fields, 6 Softball Fields, and an Outdoor Gym sponsored by AdventHealth."
But in recent weeks, parts of the facility have seemingly fallen into disrepair.
A January 18th OP/ED in The Apopka Voice illustrated the field conditions at the Northwest Recreation Complex.
"Last Tuesday, I walked Northwest Recreation Facility (NWRC) Pads 1-12," wrote Apopka resident Rod Olsen in the OP/ED. "The attached pictures represent only eight of the 115 pictures that I took. The 115 pictures I took only represent a portion of the hundreds of additional examples that could have been taken. The white sand patches in the pictures are equivalent to putting lipstick on a pig. Those bare spots must be filled appropriately, groomed, rolled, re-seeded, and maintained. Having attended primarily soccer games since 2006, the fields are worse than ever. These fields need to be properly maintained."
An email campaign from CFSC parents followed the OP/ED.
This form letter was sent to members of the Apopka City Council and Parks and Recreation Director Radley Williams:
"Dear City of Apopka Mayor, Commissioners & Recreation Director,
I am writing to express my concerns regarding the deteriorating Northwest Recreation Complex fields. I believe that the fields require maintenance and repair to ensure the safety of the youth players. I encourage you to support providing well-maintained fields for all athletes who use the complex.
The Northwest Recreation Complex had the reputation of serving youth athletes on the best fields in Central Florida. Over the past few years, deteriorating field conditions and a lack of continued year-round maintenance have caused the fields to be closed or left open in conditions that pose a risk of injury to our youth athletes.
As a community, we should strive to have the best fields, not only for the sake of appearance but, more importantly, to provide a safe and secure environment for children to play and grow. Your support as city leaders and representatives is instrumental to ensuring these issues are rectified for all athletic programs utilizing the facility."
The Council and Williams received dozens of these emails. Williams responded with a plan that no one supported.
"Due to the continued concerns regarding the current conditions of the soccer/multipurpose pads used by your group, we have decided to shut down pads 9-12 for an additional 4 weeks, beginning today," Williams said in an email to Naji S. Khouri, the President of the CFSC on January 29th. "This will provide continued rest and maintenance on these pads. The fields will tentatively be set to reopen for full play on the weekend of 2/24/24. We will reassess pads 9-12 in two weeks to see if the maintenance shutdown will need to be extended further into March. Your rental fees will be waived during this extended shutdown period."
It was not the outcome Khouri was looking for, considering their 2024 training was scheduled to begin on February 5th.
"Shutting down pads 9-12 is understandable considering they were supposed to be shut down for repairs & maintenance from November 22 - Feb 4, but were not as recently as last week," Khouri said in an emailed response back to Williams. "However, less than a 5-hour notice without alternatives or suggestions when hundreds of Apopka kids are returning to their first day of training, as scheduled & approved by you, seems retaliatory! We expect an alternative location at NWRC that's acceptable and beneficial to the kids of this City."
The thread went back and forth, but the tone only got worse.
"As of right now, I have received 56 emails from members of the Central Florida Soccer Club expressing their concerns and stating the fields require repair and maintenance to ensure the safety of the players," said Williams. "This has absolutely had an impact on our decision to extend the closure on Pads 9-12, as I would not put a group on fields that they feel are not safe for play, regardless of our professional assessment. On our phone call on Friday, you also communicated to me that you felt there are still safety issues on the fields, despite me telling you that our Parks Superintendent, contracted third party turf experts, and myself walked the pads you were set to use and deemed them safe and ready for play. Your response was you will agree to disagree with our assessment. With that information, and the continued concern being represented throughout the weekend and today, the decision was made to extend the maintenance period on the Pads 9-12."
"This is not an alternative as pursuant to you & your team's recommendations based on field conditions," Khouri said. "The plan agreed upon by everyone was to shut down Pad 9 completely and shut down the southern 1/3rd of Pad 10, shift one of the programs to Pad 16, and be diligent with rotations on Pads 11 & 12, until pads 9 & 10 recover. With Pad 16 being available, why is that not suggested? Or was Pad 16 available before our email campaign and miraculously it's not now? Furthermore, the concerns from our city residents, as discussed before, are not only Pads 9 - 12, but ALL fields at the complex. Does this mean you're shutting down the entire complex, or conveniently, just the ones the Apopka CFSC children are using? Additionally, just so we're clear, this decision is based on our email campaign as describe below, or did I misunderstand your statement? Again, seems like a retaliatory move on your part! Something that I don't believe the residents of our community would appreciate."
Unable to resolve the issue in the email thread, Khouri and Williams agreed to a face-to-face meeting.
At that meeting, Williams, Khouri, and representatives from the City and CFSC talked for approximately two hours in what was described as "occasionally heated but ultimately productive" discussions. It was agreed that on Friday, February 2nd, CFSC and City staff officials would walk the fields and decide if they would be playable on Monday, February 5th.
And even though there was tension and heat between the CFSC and the City, a funny thing happened. The NWRC staff worked feverishly to bring the fields up to playable standards.
"The City did a lot of work at the complex over the last several days," said Khouri. "We look forward to seeing the children on the pitch after two months of being away. Thanks to everyone who made this possible."
Tempers flared, extreme measures were presented, and ultimatums were threatened.
The CFSC leadership held its ground and demanded conditions improve on the fields. It's an organization that spends over $50,000 in field rental payments to the City. Parents banded together to point out an issue important to them. They reached out to the City Council and staff to express their concerns.
City staff pushed back but also responded with results that were acceptable to the group.
And in the end, these two opposing forces came together and found a solution. It's a little slice of municipal government and its citizens working well to solve a problem.
Most everyone prefers cordiality and harmony, but sometimes passion gets in the way, and other emotions ensue. That's no reason to check out of an argument or to withdraw from an important discussion when you have a point of view that has not been heard.
In a community where opinions are abundant and diverse, spirited debate and discourse play a vital role in shaping our understanding of complex issues. By engaging in constructive and open-minded discussions, we can gain new perspectives, challenge our opinions, and ultimately arrive at more well-informed conclusions. While disagreements can sometimes be uncomfortable, they can also be an opportunity for growth and learning.
It's a lesson for the Apopka City Council and the candidates running for office.
Good luck with your new season, Central Florida Soccer Club. And a special thank you to Williams and the Apopka Parks and Recreation Department for stepping up during a difficult time and taking care of an important local group.