By ANNE MARIE KILDAY Chronicle Correspondent
A coalition of youth sports organizations serving thousands of Houston-area youngsters is kicking off an ambitious $10 million fundraising campaign to build more sports fields. The South Campus Sports Association is an alliance that includes West University Little League, West University Soccer Club, Southwest Football League, West University Softball Association, Houston Lacrosse, the Braes Bayou Little League and the West University Sports Tri-Sports Association. The leagues, which serve about 5,000 youth athletes from 60 different Houston ZIP codes, is facing a shrinking amount of available land and a growing demand for playing fields. The Southwest Football League is just one example of the explosion in youth sports. The league, formed in 2002, started with 150 players. It now has 600 football players — and demand from other young athletes. Will Bertron, the founder of the Southwest Football League, said the South Campus Sports Association will use a variety of fundraising methods to develop the land. "Securing the land, while a challenge, was financially the easy part," Bertron said. "The difficult part now is raising the money to develop it. "Some people say, 'Put up a back-stop or a goal post, and you've got a playing field.' It's more complex than that. There are issues like drainage that have to be taken into consideration." To meet the needs of youngsters involved in various sports, the SCSA was formed in 2002. The group borrowed money to buy 65 acres at the corner of West Bellfort and Stella Link, and developed five new sports fields on that site. The group last year successfully lobbied the city of Houston to change its plans to extend West Bellfort, from Main Street to Stella Link. The city's original plans for the street project would have cut the South Campus property in half — a possible danger to the youngsters playing sports. Extension altered After working closely with Mayor Bill White and the city of Houston's Public Works Department, the city agreed to change the West Bellfort extension so that it would run along the southern boundary of the sports complex. But the five temporary playing fields — three for football and two for lacrosse — will be demolished as soon as the West Bellfort construction starts in May. "We need to raise some capital so those fields can be rebuilt right away," Bertron said. The association recently announced a master plan for the 65-acre tract. It calls for construction of five soccer fields, three football (or lacrosse) fields, three Little League baseball fields, one junior baseball field and one senior baseball field, three softball fields and one other playing field for either softball or Little League baseball. The plan also includes a large park, Campus Park, a jogging path, pavilions with restrooms, flagpoles and landscaping. The shortage of area land for sports fields is a result of several factors, including new school construction programs at Pershing Junior High School, and Poe, Longfellow, West University and River Oaks Elementary schools. HISD construction Construction of the new McGovern Library and the Randalls' Holcombe shopping center also took away space that had once been used for youth sports. "We are at an interesting juncture with all of the HISD construction," Bertron said. "All of that has brought to the forefront the fact that the majority of fields used by youth sports groups are borrowed fields. We've had some very gracious hosts. "But their (the school district) primary concern is education. And if they need to build a science lab, or a computer wing, there is absolutely nothing sacred about those playing fields." The SCSA board, with the help of its member leagues, has already received $1.3 million in pledges during an informal stage of fundraising to fund development of South Campus. The SCSA also received a $300,000 matching grant from the West University Little League. Now the SCSA is reaching out to the community for $10 million to help develop the entire sports campus. Bertron stressed that while the leadership of the SCSA is predominantly composed of West University Place residents, many youngsters from different neighborhoods all over Houston participate in the association's youth sports programs. Although there are strict boundaries imposed on Little League baseball, the soccer, lacrosse and football programs are bringing together youth athletes from diverse backgrounds and neighborhoods, Bertron said. "Sports is a way to keep kids out of trouble — that's a huge deal," Bertron said. "And it is something we've already experienced in the football league." Challenger Division Bertron said the Challenger Division of West U. Little League, which serves youngsters with disabilities, also is open to male and female players from all areas of Houston. "The sports campus allows kids to meet other new kids from other areas of the city. All of a sudden, they are blended on to one team and it's been real nice to see," Bertron said. The campaign features a variety of ways to donate toward the project. They include naming rights for key projects to amenities such as benches, markers on a jogging path and trees. "We really hope that the entire community, including some of the foundations and endowments in the city, will wrap their arms around this project," Bertron said. "We are really hoping that people will understand we're not necessarily looking for a big check today, but a commitment over the next few years."