Phil Nickinson (Photo: Special to the News Journal)
Pensacola has changed a lot since 2005. It was the year of Hurricane Dennis. The Vince Whibbs Sr. Community Maritime Park was still in the concept stage and years away from being from the crown jewel that it is today. And Pensacola itself very much was still reeling from Hurricane Ivan’s devastation in September 2004.
And in the spring of 2005, the Pensacola City Council unanimously voted to not build three new soccer fields at Hitzman Park in Scenic Heights.
"To put soccer fields in that park would take out hundreds of trees," P.C. Wu — who still represents District 1 and Scenic Heights some 14 years later — said to the News Journal in May of 2005. "Langley Avenue is basically a two-lane road, and we would be talking about a major traffic hazard."
More recently, a small cadre of Scenic Heights neighbors has been sharing that old news clipping as “proof” that what was rejected in 2005 also should be rejected in 2019.
That argument has a fatal flaw.
Much has changed in the past 14 years. We largely have recovered from the hurricanes, and later the housing bubble. Downtown is flourishing. And the desire for a city youth soccer league has grown exponentially.
And this time around, the proposal for new soccer fields at Hitzman Park has a completely different footprint. It includes the property on which the Northeast Branch of the YMCA of Northwest Florida sits.
YMCA members know that the Langley Avenue building has far outlived its useful lifespan. Instead, it and the area where the Y’s pool is now would be used for one more soccer field — there already is one at Hitzman and another at the YMCA facility — and improved parking.
The YMCA, for its part, has proposed relocating its youth programming — including after-school care and summer camps — from the aged Langley Avenue site to the newer, city-owned Vickrey Center. The city also would swap to the Y city-owned property at the Roger Scott/Vickrey Center complex. The Y has talked about using that new property to improve and expand the fitness and wellness programs it offers in the Northeast Pensacola area.
Back in 2005, that wasn’t the plan. The City did not have access to additional land on which to build fields. Instead, it would have extended east through Hitzman Park, where the disc golf course now stands. That was a nonstarter then, and it rightfully would be a nonstarter today.
Every rendering released to the public clearly shows how new fields would use the existing space of the current Hitzman Park field, stretching west into the property the YMCA is hoping to trade to the city.
It’s not just apples and oranges. The 2019 plan is an apple. The 2005 plan is a crescent wrench.
The simple fact is that demand for a city youth league has more than doubled in the past four years alone — never mind compared to what it was 14 years ago. The city has a duty to do what it can to help meet that need. Even if Pensacola Youth Soccer never adds another player, the city has an obligation to provide fields that are safe, functional, and capable of supporting its children. And the YMCA can help facilitate that by trading its land.
Then there’s the North Pensacola Optimist Club, which founded Hitzman Park back in the 1970s. It did so much to the chagrin of the neighbors, who believed at the time that such a park would ruin their neighborhood.
Sound familiar? The neighborhood survived. In fact, it’s thrived.
"I don’t know if it would ruin the neighborhood," Buck Buckley, current president of the North Pensacola Optimist Club, said at the Feb. 14 Pensacola City Council meeting. "But I do know that the Optimist Club and Optimist International’s sole purpose for existence is to do things for the children.
"When I took over as president a little over a year ago, my only stated goal was to get a dedicated space for youth soccer. It’s looking like we’re taking that seriously, and I want to thank you for doing that, whether it be at Hitzman, expanded, or at some other location."
In November 2018, Wu joined four other Pensacola City Council members to vote unanimously to open discussions with the YMCA about this proposal. It’s unfair to use Wu’s words from 2005 as supposed ammunition against what clearly is a different and better plan a decade and a half later.
The City is addressing or has mitigated every reasonable concern voiced by nearby residents. Traffic. Lighting. Preserving the existing park’s multiuse features. It has reduced the size of the fields and reconfigured parking so that no heritage trees will be lost. It now proposes a berm — planted with native vegetation to buffer runoff — between the fields and the homes in Soto Grande that abutt the park. (Today, it’s possible to walk right up to someone’s backyard — just as it’s been for years.)
The YMCA, for its part, promises not to leave a single child behind in the transition.
We should expect (and demand) nothing less from those two organizations, which have done nothing but approach this endeavor in good faith. That’s all they were asked to do with the November vote, and that’s all they have done since.
The same cannot be said of attempting to use the words of our elected officials in 2005 to fuel fear, uncertainty and doubt in 2019.
Phil Nickinson is a 15-year resident of Scenic Heights, coaches an Under-10 girls team and is a member of the newly formed Pensacola Youth Soccer nonprofit organization.