ELKHART — On a recent weekday night, kids swarm around, chasing balls on two makeshift soccer fields while attentive parents line the perimeters.
The uneven ground is hard and the grass is dry from lack of rain and many of the parents are standing or seated on blankets.
Nearby grass parking lots are filled with vehicles and a group of people operate concessions out of the back of a vehicle.
Two port-a-johns serve hundreds of young and old.
But this is progress on the south side of Elkhart and much greater things are on the horizon for the old vacant lot that is now known as Stiver Park.
The idea of starting a soccer league coincided with efforts to establish the park, located east of Sixth Street on Stiver Avenue.
In three years, the soccer league has flourished and currently involves nearly 500 children, and neighborhood leaders believe they will have as much success in establishing the park.
“You’d be surprised the people that want to get involved when you talk about their children,” said Rick Newbill, president of the Southdale Bridge Builders Neighborhood Association.
Newbill is leading the charge behind a grassroots effort to build the park with virtually no involvement from city officials who have made it clear the city cannot afford to get involved.
Such goals are rare.
“It’s one of a kind,” said Jason Moreno, a community organizer with LaCasa who is supporting establishment of the park.
The desire to develop the lot into a park is one of the results of the South Central Improvement Coalition, which is working to improve neighborhoods on the south side of the city.
Newbill took an interest in the park idea several years ago when he became involved in SCIC.
LaCasa is involved to help assure the goals of the SCIC come to fruition.
Newbill said they began to gain momentum three years ago when the neighborhood association received a $200 grant. Newbill then turned to a church. Together, they organized a block party that seemed to get the ball rolling and generated $600.
Newbill took it from there and has been networking with groups and companies to line up much more support.
“Now that we got people interested in the community, a lot of things are starting to happen,” Newbill said. “I’m excited.”
By next spring, when the neighborhood soccer league begins its fourth season, Newbill said he hopes to see more improvements to the field itself and the surrounding property.
While the needs are many, one big item has remained elusive.
“All I need is dirt ... I need to level off the soccer fields to make it nice for the kids. I’m going on my third year and still don’t even have dirt out there,” Newbill said.
So far, support has come from various groups.
He worked with Dan Oakley of the Elkhart Flames youth soccer league to acquire equipment.
Elkhart Community Schools has helped in different ways, including the donation of some soccer goals and other items.
For long-range plans, Newbill and others turned to Lehman and Lehman Inc., a landscape architecture firm in Mishawaka, to see if drawings could be prepared to highlight goals.
Chuck Lehman, president of Lehman and Lehman, said his company was happy to help transfer a vision into a working document.
“This is truly meeting a community need that is not being met elsewhere,” Lehman said.
“It’s those types of stories that you just want to jump on that wave and ride it out with them,” he said.
Aside from Newbill’s exuberance and success, there have been some complications.
Newbill has approached city officials more than once about how the city might be involved and admits the relations have not gone exceedingly well even though the city, on occasion, provided some assistance.
At one point, Newbill said, the city helped paint lines for the soccer fields and provided trash cans. The containers, though, were removed after Newbill said he asked the city to empty them.
Ownership of the land also seems to be unsettled.
Moreno said he researched the property’s history and said he believes that at one point, the city owned it.
Years ago, the land was donated to the Urban Enterprise Zone, a group that intended to establish the lot as a park, but soon became defunct.
Mayor Dick Moore said the former group attempted to deed it to the city and sought certain improvements, but the city balked at the notion.
Moore said the city can’t afford to develop or maintain a new park and is not interested in a shared arrangement in which the city would have a limited role.
“We have worked with groups before to develop and make improvements with the promise that they would maintain them,” Moore said in an email to The Truth. “History shows it does not work. It nearly always falls back on the city to maintain.”
Moore said the ownership has been researched and that the city does not own the property.
Moreno and Newbill said they had hoped the city would cover the liability insurance for the park and that they were not seeking any other financial support from the city.
Newbill said Friday he has alternative plans to cover the cost of liability insurance.
“We’re going to continue with the program with or without them, but we wanted to develop a relationship with the city of Elkhart,” Newbill said.
“We have a lot of needs here that we’re going to meet privately. I’m going to prove it to them ... All I need is their blessings to let us do it.”
Despite the challenges, city councilman Rod Roberson applauded the efforts of Newbill and others, saying they “epitomize how to work together to accomplish something” even in light of the city’s inability to lend financially support.
“The neighborhood believed in this and that’s why it’s gotten to the point where it is right now,” Robinson said.