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Parks and recreation: Long-Island style

Brookhaven Town Supervisor Mark Lesko (l) and Parks

Brookhaven Town Supervisor Mark Lesko (l) and Parks Commissioner Edward Morris at the entrance to the Medford Athletic Complex. (June 29, 2010) Photo Credit: Photo by Joseph D. Sullivan

A summer breeze picked up early in the night, just enough to cool down another perfect day in the Town of Brookhaven. Ed Morris, the town's commissioner of parks and recreation, leaned over a fence at Raynor Park in East Setauket and smiled.

The place was packed - just the way Morris envisioned.

Children of all ages enjoyed the reconstructed playground. A couple strolled the spacious park on a new walking path. Fans lining the fences watched a high school girls soccer game on Raynor's multipurpose grass field. Three baseball games were under way on two multipurpose diamonds and a Little League field.

There was action everywhere and the atmosphere was electric.

"We're making a big difference in our communities," Morris said. "We've overhauled most of the park system from the marinas and the town pools to the athletic fields in the past three years. Our facilities are giving our residents an opportunity to enjoy their leisure time in a clean and safe environment."

Morris, 36, of Center Moriches, has a passion for sports. He was a standout pitcher for Eastport High School and Hofstra. As a high school junior in 1991, he threw a no-hitter and struck out 16 in a state Class D semifinal.

He credits his father, Ed Morris Sr., for being a major influence in his life. He watched as his father raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to build the PAL baseball stadium in Holtsville in 1992.

"He dedicated himself to kids," he said. "Kids remember where they played in their youth. And I want them to look back and say they played on great fields."

Under Morris, the town has invested about $35 million to enhance the park's infrastructure, which includes 31 field renovations. An overhaul of existing park facilities and the construction of new multipurpose fields took the town to another level in recreation.

Morris' vision is to host championship high school events at the local and state levels. He has followed the lead of the Town of Oyster Bay, which responded to the exponential growth of youth sports by building the Field of Dreams in Massapequa (a 10-acre all-purpose athletic complex), refurbishing existing parks and constructing new ones in places such as Hicksville, Bethpage, Massapequa, Jericho, Plainedge, Centre Island and Syosset.

"There is a demand for recreational facilities and these towns have met the growing need for field space with enhancements beyond anyone's wildest imagination," Morris said. "We're finding that our parks and marinas are getting optimal use because we've addressed the needs of everyone in the community. Our multipurpose turf fields are used all year round for a variety of girls and boys sports - from lacrosse to soccer and youth football."

These places are desirable for so many reasons. There was the introduction of multipurpose turf throughout the Town of Brookhaven - in Centereach, Coram, Mount Sinai, Center Moriches, Medford and East Setauket. Those maintenance-friendly fields are used in all weather throughout the year.

Long Island was introduced to an all-turf facility in 2004 when Baseball Heaven in Yaphank opened. The complex boasts seven fields, used for baseball, softball, flag football and soccer. The facility was the first of its kind, and attracted interest and competition from all over the country.

Morris saw endless potential in Baseball Heaven and used it as a measuring stick for what was to come.

"It's a great place to watch or play a game," Morris said. "And I believed our town could build and enhance all of its fields and parks and make them just as inviting."

"We made it a priority in our capital budget," Brookhaven Town councilman Tim Mazzei said. "A lot of our parks and fields weren't in the greatest shape. We wanted to change the look."

Town Supervisor Mark Lesko said the goal for Brookhaven was to have the best parks system in the state. He added that this marks the end of a five-year capital project and that the next five years will be a challenge in this fiscal environment.

"We are still a growing town with young families and there's plenty to do,'' said Lesko, a former Washington, D.C., high school All-American who played quarterback at Yale University.

While Brookhaven basks in the Suffolk spotlight with its new digs, the Town of Oyster Bay was way ahead of its time in recreation.

Longtime Town Supervisor John Venditto, 61, recognized the need for multipurpose fields and started the construction boom on Long Island after taking office in January, 1998. Part of the challenge was to preserve what little open space was available.

"We really needed two times the field space after Title IX passed," Venditto said. "The explosion in girls sports necessitated that there be ample field space for everyone. And keeping kids on the fields is better than the alternative, which is having them on the streets."

To help fund the recreation projects, Oyster Bay has had three environmental bond votes during the past 10 years, and each passed with more than 70 percent of the vote in favor. In November 2007, town residents approved SEA (Save Environmental Assets) Fund III, a $60-million environmental bond fund - $30 million of which was targeted for development and improvements to parks. Under the two earlier bonds, a total of $25 million was earmarked for park development.

"We had to enhance the quality of life in the town," Venditto said. "We made a statement of what we wanted to be in our town. I wanted to be recognized as a recreation center and a place for wellness. It's pretty well documented that the parks increase property values. And above all, it's worth it if one kid utilizes the parks to get off the street and go on to bigger things like college. Based on my observation, it's not one kid getting an opportunity, there's many getting these opportunities."

Venditto now can boast that Syosset-Woodbury Community Park and John J. Burns Park are Nos. 1 and 2 in the state for aesthetics and safety after an independent survey conducted by NYPIRG (New York Public Interest Research Group).

"And we're really excited about the grand opening of our indoor facility in Hicksville, which will house the headquarters for the Nassau Police Athletic League," Oyster Bay deputy supervisor Leonard Genova said. "It's 21,980 square feet of pure athletic love, which also houses the Morgan Center, a preschool program for children afflicted with cancer."

Venditto remembers when he was in Little League, lining up on the third-base line and walking across the field with his team to pick up glass, cigarette butts and whatever else was lying around.

"We can never measure if better fields relates directly to a future success,'' he said, "but it's a perception that it helps children move in the right direction. If someone says we spent a lot of money to build and refurbish facilities, my answer is a resounding 'Yes!' - it's priceless and you can't put a dollar amount on this."

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