March 14, 2017 10:10:55 AM
For Starkville Parks and Recreation Department Sports Coordinator William Pochop, success in his job is measured by creating youth sports leagues that promote a culture of fun, activity and positive experiences.
Pochop said he feels SPRD is doing its best job ever of creating community buy-in and involvement, and data the department released reinforces his claim: SPRD's big four seasonal youth leagues -- basketball, kickball, flag football and girls' softball -- have grown in terms of participation each year since he took on the sports coordinator role in 2013.
"It's not the money or the numbers, really. For us, it's the overall desire to get children active. It's about having fun and creating a culture of recreation, activity and inclusion," he said. "Sports, on their own, are competitive and tough -- you can't change that -- but our goal as a recreation department is to make sure anyone from any background, skill set or ability can come out here, play and have fun. Healthy kids have fun in a win or a loss because they see the fun in playing the game. We're thrilled that in a time when recreational sports are in decline nationally, we're continuing to grow."
The youth basketball league has shown the most growth in the last four years, almost doubling in participation since 2013's player count of 354. This year, there are 687 children between the ages of 5-18 in the league, which runs from January through March.
The kickball league, which features 5-7-year-olds, more than doubled from 2013's mark of 33 children to 68 participants in last year's July-August league.
More than 330 girls between 5-18 years old are expected to participate in this year's softball season, which runs from April to June. In 2013, only 244 players were in the league.
Last year's 161 participant mark in flag football represented a 45-player increase from 2013's level. The league is open to children ages 6-12 and runs from August to late October or early November, depending on the weather.
"I'm pleased with the current trajectory of the park system. I look for it, in the next five to 10 years, to become one of the premier park systems in the state," said Mayor Parker Wiseman.
This year marks the first season SPRD has opened its youth basketball league up for ages 5-6 and 16-18. Increased public demand led to the expansion, Pochop said, and similar expansions could come in the future for flag football and kickball.
"The goal is to always have opportunities for everyone. It doesn't make sense to add something if there's no indication it'll work, between staff and resources. You have to do your homework on the front end," he said. "We want to make sure that the staff and resources we have are going into what's working, what's improving and what's growing, but we also want to make sure our doors are open for suggestions. If a group wants to have additional access, we can get those conversations started."
As the department's youth participation numbers increase, Pochop said SPRD is making use of the resources it has to ensure the leagues are successful. Volunteers and coaches are always in short supply, he said.
"We're always strained for those because I think people think that there is more involved in it than there is. At more competitive levels, (a superior knowledge of the support) is needed. At the recreational level, we want people that want to help kids have fun and that get out there and are encouraging," he said. "I think any recreational department will tell you there's always a need for space. We definitely could use a third basketball court, and soccer could use five more fields. We definitely make use of what we have, and I think right now we do it well."
City still seeking sports director
Starkville aldermen are still seeking a director of recreation and sports for the parks department after hiring a new maintenance director in January.
The board re-advertised the newly created position in January after, Wiseman confirmed, a finalist was picked but declined the position.
The new hire is expected to make between $41,747 and $55,560, and aldermen could identify finalists for interviews soon.
Trent Helms, SPRD's new maintenance director, is a Maben resident and Starkville firefighter who owns Southscape Landscape. He studied landscape design at Mississippi State University.
His salary was set at $50,000 by aldermen in January, and he started his new role with the city on Feb. 3.
The two new positions were created last year after a Dalhoff Thomas Design Studio master planning effort identified numerous deficiencies within SPRD.
The report recommended other short-term goals, including reorganizing the department's operations, creating a parks advisory board of community volunteers invested in the system's success, controlling unauthorized use of athletic fields and lights, and reviewing opportunities to outsource some services.
It also recommended Starkville develop a long-term maintenance plan for its system's aging equipment and facilities after the firm rated more than half of the city's eight public parks as in "poor" condition and estimated the system only provides about half of the acreage needed to support the city's projected 2020 population.
Approximately 150 additional acres are needed to meet the demand of the next two decades, the report stated.
Wiseman said the incoming administration is likely to deal with the majority of recommendations outlined by Dalhoff Thomas, including the addition of two new maintenance workers.
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch
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