By Seth Daniel
The lack of playing fields has been a major issues this year, but several councillors, including Councillor Damali Vidot, want to clean house at the existing Highland Park Field before setting out on any new expeditions.
Vidot and the Council passed an order at last Monday’s meeting, Sept. 12, that looks to find out who is using the popular soccer field and whether it is really being used by Chelsea residents.
“I want to clean out some of the old network,” she said this week. “We need a more transparent process and make sure that youth of Chelsea get priority. We have limited space and we need to be more thoughtful about how we manage these spaces…We obviously need more fields, but first we need to iron our what we have.”
The issue was first laid bare in a committee meeting of the Council and a room full of stakeholders, with many complaining that they could never get time on the field due to the domination of the field by highly-lucrative and well-sponsored Spanish-speaking men’s league – some of which Vidot said might be playing under the guise of a youth soccer organization.
As has been common knowledge, for quite some time, a country “World Cup” men’s league has operated at Highland Park with Chelsea media sponsors and other local neighborhood organizational sponsors from East Boston. The league charges men to play on various teams representing Latin countries and operates at peak hours in a highly-publicized affair that includes the open concession stand, which is run under City contract by Tu Casa Restaurant in Chelsea (a contract for which they pay $250 per year to have). Some contend this league and it’s long-time permit holder is dominating the playing time, though that permit holder has disagreed at several public meetings.
One former Chelsea High player, Carlos Vaquerano, who is running a traveling team for Chelsea teens, said at a meeting earlier this year that he was never able to get time on the field for a home game, and was only given a few hours last year in October.
“These are adult men playing soccer who are, mostly, from outside of the city,” said Vidot. “I don’t have a problem with men playing soccer, but after hours and not during youth sports time. From what I know, there are entities in the city who can’t gain access to the field. Out of all the operations, Carlos (Vaquerano) is the only one that is a certified non-profit that is serving Chelsea youths. I have even heard that when Carlos shows up with a permit, they look at it and when he shows it to them, they lock up the bathrooms and leave.”
City Manager Tom Ambrosino said the old system required the City Clerk to book field times and slots, but that he has taken that out of the Clerk’s duties.
“My goal is to move that permitting from City Clerk to the new Recreation and Cultural Affairs Division under the auspices of Bea Cravatta,” he said. “That should happen in 2017. I look at Bea as an objective person who has some sense of people who do sports leagues. Maybe she can make objective decisions and this will all go away. That seems to be the most appropriate place to permit parks rather than the City Clerk.”
He also said that he is going to re-bid the concession stand, which requires Tu Casa to be there in operation and with open bathrooms when any permit holder is on site. He said he hoped that others might apply, but wasn’t confident there would be a lot of competition as it is a very difficult operation to run.
Vidot said her research so far indicates that the permits all come back to only a few people using numerous organizational names, and she hopes the Council can take a closer fact finding look at the situation.
“In my research I have found the space at Highland Park is closed off for many who want to use it,” she said. “It’s three or four different guys, but it all comes down to one person dominating the space. That person is not a certified non-profit either. That’s maybe something we should look at. Maybe anyone who wants to operate a league should be required to be a registered non-profit entity so we know who everyone is and so we limit our liability and can’t get sued if someone is hurt.”
The Council order is in process, and Committee meetings on the issue are expected this month or early in October. Permitting for the field takes place in February, March and April.