What a great holiday season this turned out to be for the youth of Happy Valley.
The children of the Centre Region should soon enjoy the benefits of the largest park ever built in this area. With nine full-size fields dedicated for soccer, football, lacrosse and field hockey, this 100-acre jewel is destined to be a showpiece for Happy Valley (and dare I say the local realtors – hint, hint). Did I mention some of these nine fields will have turf and, shock of shocks, some will have lights! Plus there will be a full-size practice turf field that could become, get this, an indoor turf field. The news that this project is moving forward is a huge present to every kid in Happy Valley.
That’s right, almost a decade after the first piece of land was acquired for the park, and four years after the final master plan was adopted, the Whitehall Road Regional Park has now taken a critical step forward.
And it can’t get built fast enough.
Centre Region Parks and Recreation Authority (CRPR) operates 1,020 acres of parkland at 56 sites across the Centre Region. On those 1,020 acres there are softball fields, basketball courts and tennis courts, along with picnic pavilions, jogging trails and playgrounds.
But on those 56 sites and 1000-plus acres, there are only four “dedicated” soccer fields and no dedicated football, field hockey or lacrosse fields. Circleville Park has one dedicated soccer field and the Fogleman Field Complex behind Houserville Elementary has three dedicated soccer fields. But the Fogleman soccer fields are on land leased by College Township from the State College Area School District and subject to the needs of the district. It’s not a truly permanent park.
Imagine that. The most popular team sport in America - football - and the sport that almost single-handedly supports the Penn State’s entire athletic department does not have one single dedicated public place anywhere in Happy Valley where kids can play it.
And the most popular sport in the world – soccer – and one of the fastest growing professional sports in America, has only four dedicated public fields in Happy Valley.
To be fair, there are 13 parks where open space is converted to youth-sized soccer fields in the spring, summer and fall, and at least one where a football field is laid out, but many of these fields overlap softball fields (oops, now we’re on dirt, oh, now we’re on grass) and almost all are youth-sized, not full-size regulation fields. And as hard as everyone works to keep these grassy open spaces mowed, lined and reasonably flat, well, let’s just say that sometimes the balls bounce a bit oddly and out-of-bounds is an estimate.
Whitehall Road Regional Park will immediately increase by a factor of three the number of dedicated public football and soccer fields. In addition, having public fields with turf is a gigantic leap into the 21st century for the local kids. Turf fields are virtually guaranteed to be flat, have clearly visible permanent lines, are exactly the right size, and are available anytime they’re not covered in snow.
Which brings me to another reason Whitehall Road Regional Park is a wonderful gift to our kids. Money. The money it doesn’t cost kids to play.
I’ve used the word “public” several times above to make clear that Whitehall Road Regional Park is a public park. Meaning anyone will have access to it free of charge. Because although Penn State has plenty of athletic fields and the school district has two turf fields of its own, access to those fields are limited or totally restricted. They’re mostly off-limits to local kids.
So the only opportunity these kids have to play on quality fields is by joining club teams that are based elsewhere. And they do. Numerous local parents are driving their kids to Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, Lancaster and beyond to play on club teams that have access to fields and facilities that don’t exist here. Of course, that costs money. Club team dues, tournament fees, travel expenses – those all add up.
In 2015, the Aspen Institute's Project Play issued "Sport for All, Play for Life: A Playbook to Get Every Kid in the Game," a report that offers a new model for youth sports in America to combat the drop in overall participation. One of the reasons participation is going down is money. When the report was released, only 38 percent of kids from homes with a household income of $25,000 or less played team sports, compared to 67 percent of kids from homes with over $100,000 in household income.
The median household income in Centre County is $54,407. Meaning half the households in Centre County make less than that. So there are likely a lot of kids not participating in team sports because of money. And Project Play’s report notes that “participation in sports by children and adolescents is associated with a range of documented physical, emotional, social, educational, and other benefits that can last into adulthood.” The question for Happy Valley is do we want to offer youth sports opportunities to all kids, not just those of upper financial means? Do we want all our kids to have the chance at the physical, emotional, social and educational benefits of team sports? Whitehall Road Regional Park is a resounding answer of “yes” to that question.
And for this foresight we have local organizations to whom we owe a debt of gratitude.
The first is the Centre Region Council of Governments (COG), who years ago recognized a need and started working to provide new, larger regional parks for the future - focused on active recreation opportunities for families and community organizations. The problem was that the size of land needed to address the shortage of public sport fields was so large, and the cost of construction greater than anything previously attempted, that a regional solution was required. Regional parks are a great method to provide those facilities to all residents. This vision has already shown results with the opening of Oak Hall Regional Park.
The second is Penn State. I believe Penn State should be the best at everything it does, and that critical observation requires I offer kudos when it achieves excellence. In this case the university paved the way for Whitehall Road Regional Park from both a geographic and financial perspective.
As noted this will be the largest park ever constructed in Happy Valley and that means it needed a lot of land. The university sold to Ferguson Township and COG 100 acres from a 565-acre parcel of property they owned. Then, to offer financial assistance for the park, they sold a small 46 acre portion of those 565 acres to a developer, and included the requirement that the developer build and pay for infrastructure for the park – access road, water and sewer lines, and the construction of a sewage pumping station. This will save us hundreds of thousands of dollars of tax money.
And with that sale finally completed less than two weeks ago, the park has taken a huge step toward reality.
In other words, the Whitehall Road Regional Park has been a community effort – one that at long last is coming to fruition.
Happy New Year kids – and here’s to watching you play on some great new high-quality fields very soon.