Volunteers score grants to bring soccer fields to kids on Bay City's East Side

An off-the-cuff comment and serendipity brought community members Rob Clark and Ali Smith together to update and add amenities to Maplewood Park. Located on Bay City’s East Side on First and Sheridan streets, the site was transformed from a field into a park with a ninja warrior course and playscape in 2021.

Rob Clark, Director of Communications and Community Relations at Michigan Sugar Company and president of the Bay Area Soccer Association (BASA), had the notion in 2018 to bring BASA to the East Side.

“We were taking a look at our numbers, where our players come from, and where the families come from,” says Clark. “We realized, about 85% to 90% of our players come from the West Side.”

Wanting to address the disparity, Clark dreamed aloud, “Imagine if BASA came to Baytown.”

Baytown Family Neighborhood is a Section 8 subsidized property on the East Side, near downtown. BASA currently has one complex in Bay City located on Monitor Road on the West Side.

“We need more diversity, we need to reach parts of the community where that diversity exists, and we need to bring soccer to them,” says Clark.

A fitness obstacle course was added recently to Maplewood Park on Bay City's East Side. (Photo courtesy of the City of Bay City)Throughout the year, Clark researched how to bring his dream to fruition. He learned of an opportunity through the United States Soccer Foundation to build mini-pitches. Mini-pitches are smaller soccer fields with a hard surface, boards on all sides, and a goal at each end. The mini-pitches are designed for Futsal — FIFA’s official indoor soccer game that is often played on converted tennis courts and playgrounds.

Clark remembers working at Michigan Sugar and mentioning the project to his boss, who told him his nephew worked for United States Soccer Foundation (USFA) and could sell him mini-pitches.

“It felt a little bit like serendipity,” Clark recalls. “That afternoon, I was on the phone with his nephew from the soccer foundation, and we were off and running.”

With BASA and the USFA partnerships secured, Clark turned his sites on Tim Botzau, Bay City Parks and Environmental Affairs Manager, for a place to construct the mini-pitches. To Clark’s astoundment, Botzau mentioned Maplewood Park, located next to Baytown, as the best place for them.

“The next afternoon I’m at Maplewood Park looking around,” says Clark. “There are six tennis courts that haven’t been used for years. At some point, half of those tennis courts were turned into basketball courts, and I’m thinking, ‘This is exactly the place we should do this project.’ ”

Clark could envision the overgrown and un-used tennis and basketball courts being converted into mini-pitches, where families could gather to watch their children play and hone their soccer skills. Clark was ready to focus on fundraising when his phone rang. On the line was Ryan Tarrant, then-President and CEO of the Bay Area Chamber of Commerce. Tarrant informed Clark another project was in the works for the Maplewood Park courts.

During the COVID-19 lockdown of 2020, Ali Smith rode his bike past Maplewood Park. He noticed basketball courts had decayed. He decided then that Maplewood Park needed to be better to serve the community. (Photo courtesy of Ali Smith)Ali Smith, a local real estate agent with Ayre/Rhinehart Bay Realtors and former chair of the Minority Business Partnership with Bay Area Chamber of Commerce, had his interest piqued when riding his bicycle around the park during the COVID-19 lockdown.

“I was just riding down the street one day, where the basketball courts are located,” says Smith. “A friend of mine coaches some local kids and he was out there working with them and the condition of the courts were horrible. They had these huge cracks in them with weeds growing through.”

Witnessing the dedication of local residents using amenities nearby, Smith knew he had to find a way to revive the basketball courts.

“I grew up playing basketball there, I have a lot of memories there, a lot of lessons out there on the basketball courts,” Smith reminisces.

Tarrant suggested Clark partner with Smith for easier funding. Heeding the advice, Clark quickly reached out to Smith.

 “Shortly thereafter, I met Ali and the project went together,” says Clark.

With planning underway, the tennis courts will be re-surfaced and two soccer mini-pitches will be put in, as well as three new basketball courts and a small plaza. Park visitors can relax on new benches and picnic tables.

The Maplewood fitness park serves everyone from kindergarteners to retirees. (Photo courtesy of the City of Bay City)Clark admits the scope of the project has grown, and with it, the expense.

“It’s about a $600,000 project,” says Clark. “We started fundraising, and I started writing grants.”

The first gift came from the Kantzler Foundation in the form of $200,000, which covers the cost of two mini-pitches.

“From there, we have received funding from the Smith and Gerstacker foundations, Bay Area Community Foundation, all the way to the NAACP of Bay City, which gave $1,000 for the project,” says Clark. “We have raised $392,500 to date and I’ve got several more irons in the fire.”

One of those irons stoked the fire of Shellie Thurston, Economic Development Marketing Manager for Bay City. Thurston works with grants within different departments in the city and helps manage federal funding for community development. Through their connection of being in the same Rotary Club, they set up a meeting to see how Thurston could help with the project at Maplewood Park.

“When we had the meeting with Rob, we were thinking, ‘What can we do to offer the citizens more at this park?’ ” Thurston ponders. “We’ve got some COVID-related federal funds, that we need to spend in a fairly fast fashion.”

Thurston believes Maplewood Park is the perfect place to use those funds, and Bay City now has a project of its own: two separate projects, working in tandem with one unified goal of bringing community and activity together.

Thurston envisions a walking track around the perimeter of Maplewood Park as well as adding some ADA-accessible exercise equipment and water bottle filling stations. Thurston continues, “There will be at least one playground structure that’s for ages 0-5. We want to do something for the littles.”

There are also plans to build a small structure, housing port-a-potties and storage closets to hold any equipment for different programming that may be offered at the park.

A project of this magnitude takes time, but planning is turning into action. Thurston and Bay City are working with an engineering firm to obtain a topographic survey of Maplewood Park to better place walkways and structures.

Today, Ali Smith is part of a group of people working together to transform Maplewood Park into a community gem. (Photo courtesy of Ali Smith)“The construction wouldn’t happen this year,” says Thurston of her part of the project. “Rob is waiting on the engineers to know how to structure his mini-pitches, but other than that, he can start his project whenever he is ready.”

The timeline for Bay City’s project is optimistically set for the fall of 2024, while Clark and Smith may have the basketball courts and mini-pitches ready for action before then. 

“This project has always been about more than soccer pitches and basketball courts,” Clark reflects. “It’s about bringing a gem of a park back to life and creating something the people of Bay City can be proud of. We know this will be a place families, children, and residents of the city will want to spend time and build friendships.”

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