Apr. 16—Decatur City Schools Superintendent Michael Douglas is working on a roughly $1 million plan to upgrade the Delano Park softball field for Decatur High, in part so that female athletes will have facilities that are comparable to those of male athletes.
Douglas approached city leaders in January about his desire to upgrade the city-owned softball field with a locker room/dugout, indoor hitting facility and possibly improved parking. He also ran the ideas past members of the Delano Park Conservancy, a group that raises money for projects at the park.
Douglas said the plans are still just a concept and an architect has yet to create a design for school board and City Council approval. He said he is hoping to start on the project sometime this fiscal year.
"We're trying to create comparable facilities for the softball team with the baseball team," Douglas said. "The baseball team has the 'Red Barn,' but the softball team doesn't have anything."
Douglas said the plan for improvements to the Delano softball field wouldn't impact the neighboring basketball courts that were recently the center of controversy.
At the request of school officials, the city closed the asphalt outdoor courts during Lady Raider softball games and practices in March because of alleged cursing and fighting. However, public outcry against the closure two weeks ago led Mayor Tab Bowling to reverse the policy.
Councilman Carlton McMasters said he has been aware of Douglas' plans.
"They're phenomenal," McMasters said. "I think it's great when someone is willing to spend $1 million in a city park that benefits the city and the school system."
The Delano field is the only remaining ballfield in the city used regularly by a school and not on property owned by the school system. The high school tennis teams do use city courts and the soccer teams occasionally play at Jack Allen Recreation Complex.
At least one Conservancy member, Sally Smith, said she doesn't want school officials to think they aren't welcome, but she thinks this is an opportunity for Douglas to look for property the school system can purchase for a new softball field.
"It would be better if they owned their own property," Smith said. "And then they can return the property where the softball field is to the park."
Douglas said he knows moving the softball field to a new location "is the No. 1 desire of the Conservancy members, but that would double or triple my cost."
"Yet, the city leaders never said anything about wanting me to move the field," he said. "I even asked them if I needed to look for another location, and they said they were happy to have the school using the park."
Bowling said he liked Douglas' plans, except for the request to expand the parking lot. Douglas said he had hoped to keep fans and students safe by stopping them "from darting across" Prospect Drive when they park in the Decatur High Developmental parking lot.
"That was off the table pretty quickly," Douglas said. — Delano history
In 1887, landscape architect Nathan Franklin Barrett designed the historic Delano Park as part of Decatur Land Improvement and Furnace Co.'s plan for a new town, New Decatur. The town was renamed Albany before merging with Decatur in 1927.
Early recreational uses of the park included a nine-hole golf course and tennis courts. New public facilities were added between 1933 and 1938 as part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal efforts under the Civil Works Administration and Works Progress Administration.
A historic photo of the park shot in either 1933 or 1934 shows a ballfield, tennis courts, picnic shelter, bathhouse and rose garden under construction with a pile of stone where a bandstand was to be located.
While the west end features the rose garden and other green areas, Barbara Kelly, of the Delano Parks Conservancy, said a master plan designed in the early 2000s when her group was formed shows the east end as featuring "active recreation like bocce ball, basketball and softball."
Kelly said the master plan includes a "kite meadow and a natural amphitheater" on the east end of the park. She said they also want to plant trees and vegetation in an arboretum.
Kelly said schools have always used the park for activities like the Delano Run and cross-country practice on the popular 1-mile track.
The former men's softball field was converted to the high school girls softball field in the early 2000s because of its location just across Prospect Drive Southeast from the old high school.
That school is now Decatur Middle School, and the new high school is on the other side of Somerville Road Southeast. The two schools share the property and athletic facilities, including Ogle Stadium, on the west side of Somerville Road.
Kelly said she views the schools' use of the park and Douglas' plans for the softball as "very positive. In no way should it be perceived as a negative."
The park is on the National Historic Register and under the city's historic overlay so Douglas will have to present the architect's plans when they're ready to the city's Historic Preservation Commission.
Douglas said Conservancy members had several requests for the softball field improvements, and he will be able to accommodate most.
For example, he said he plans to follow their request that DCS use stone for the exterior of the new building that matches the stone used for construction of the existing buildings.
Douglas said DCS would also remove a fenced hitting area in left field, as requested by the Conservancy members, because it will no longer be necessary with the construction of the indoor hitting area.
"They want to remove this area and return it to the park," Douglas said.
The superintendent said the group also wanted some of the lights removed and asked that the school system allow access to the field for community activities during the offseason, but he couldn't fulfill these two requests. — Equal facilities
Douglas said the federal Title IX law requires boys and girls to have equal facilities.
"We haven't had any official complaints (about no field house for Decatur High softball) but I know some of the softball parents have noticed," the superintendent said. "I'm just trying to be proactive."
He also wants a balance between the two high schools. He said he is also planning to spend $1 million on field houses for the Austin High baseball and softball teams.
Douglas said $2 million would come from an $8 million bond issue and some capital funding the school system receives annually from the state.
He said the school system received money from the state Advancement and Technology Fund that it will use for some deferred projects like roofs and aging HVAC systems that would have normally come out of capital funding.
"This created funding we could use toward our athletic facility needs," Douglas said.
Douglas said other athletic projects on the DCS wish list are indoor practice facilities for both high schools' football teams. He suggested the Decatur High indoor facility would replace the Red Barn, a hitting and locker room facility built by the booster club.
— firstname.lastname@example.org or 256-340-2432. Twitter @DD_BayneHughes.