Youth football fields in Omaha's Levi Carter Park may finally reopen more than two years after brazen metal thieves pillaged what had been a sterling addition to Omaha city parks and northeast Omaha.
But the city, plagued by costly metal-theft damage to parks across Omaha, probably won't make the football fields' lights shine on Friday nights, or any others, at Levi Carter's Jerry Parks Youth Football Complex. And football teams may have to provide their own portable toilets — probably outside a building that the city earlier erected to house restrooms, a concession stand and a public address announcer's booth.
Thieves damaged the lights and the building while stealing wiring and copper plumbing about two years ago. They also stole one of the complex's two scoreboards. They rendered the other inoperable.
The city shut down the football complex after the theft. That was despite having built the complex only 10 years earlier, with $350,000 in donated money, and despite its regular use by about 10 teams in the Heartland Youth Football League, which has teams throughout the metro area.
Youth football coach Gannie Clark raised the matter with Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert at her Oct. 17 town hall meeting in north Omaha.
City parks officials followed up by calling Clark, a longtime coach of the Omaha Housing Authority's Heavy Hitters teams, whose home field was the Jerry Parks complex. Last week city parks officials met with Clark and Terrence Mackey of the North Omaha Boys and Girls Club.
Clark left that meeting feeling optimistic that the fields could be ready for some football in 2014.
“They said they would go down there in the next two weeks and see what it would take to get the fields back into playable condition,” Clark said. “They haven't promised me anything other than they're going to look into it and do everything in their power to make it work. ... I said I would support that 1,000 percent.”
Brook Bench, city parks director, confirmed that the city plans to check out the fields with an eye toward putting them back in use.
But the city won't repair the lights, he said. Aside from the possibility of further theft and vandalism, the lights were almost never used, Bench said.
He said the electricity for such field lights is paid for not by the city but by the people who use the lights, and there wasn't a user who wanted to pay for using the lights, Bench said.
As for the restrooms, the city won't repair them with copper, because that would be too attractive to thieves.
Bench said parks officials might seek a waiver from city plumbing regulations to use plastic pipes instead of copper at the Jerry Parks complex and other places that aren't used all year.
Clark said private funding might be sought for more extensive repairs.
During a stroll through the complex with Clark last week, the complex's fields didn't look too bad. Thick turf grass covered most of the fields, which were marred by only a few brown, weedy patches.
“Those would need to be dug up and sodded or seeded, but the fields themselves are in pretty good shape,” Clark said.
He called the state of the complex's other amenities “sickening.”
Stadium lights rise on 16 poles, lining the sidelines of both fields. On each pole a thick metal door designed for repair access had been sawed and peeled open by thieves.
The stolen scoreboard's frame hung akimbo, half cut down. The building for the restrooms and concessions was shuttered.
In his mind's eye, Clark saw what the complex looked like when all of those things were working and open, and four games, involving eight teams from Omaha and Council Bluffs, were played on fall weekend days.
Standing in what would have been an end zone, Clark spread his arms wide and said, “All of this would be full — all the parking lots, the parking along the street, the bleachers, both sides of the fields — from the times the game started until they ended.”
For coaches and players from north Omaha, taking the field there gave them a sense of pride to have such a nice facility in the community.
After the thefts, Mayor Jim Suttle's administration closed the fields. That has meant longer trips, and more gas expense, for the Heavy Hitters players' families, most of whom are OHA tenants.
Leaving the complex idle would let the fields decay and deprive north Omaha and the city of a recreational facility for youths — something “everyone says we need more of,” Clark said.
It's also a waste of a community asset in which a lot of money was invested, he said.
“I want to thank Mayor Stothert for getting her staff on the ball,” Clark said. “Something is moving. For it to just be stagnant and idle, with nothing being done, that's unacceptable.”