New Wilton Youth Sports Coalition Steps Up; But First, a Complaint about Merwin Meadows Pavilion Takeover

In addition to the usual updates on ongoing projects, the Wednesday, Mar. 9 meeting of the Parks and Recreation Commission included discussion of a complaint filed about public use of the Merwin Meadows Pavilion and a generous donation to Wilton High School’s baseball facilities, as well as a presentation from a local coalition pursuing public-private partnership support for Wilton’s sports fields.

Merwin Meadows Pavilion Usage

Commission Chair Anna Marie Bilella opened the meeting by highlighting two pieces of correspondence received and ready for discussion. The first, submitted by resident Sheila Wakoff via the Wilton town online contact form, concerned the use of the pavilion at Merwin Meadows.

The reason I am writing is that one afternoon last summer I noticed that the pavillion was being used by a very large group of people, perhaps 20 or so. From the way things were set up it looked like they were using it for many hours before this. I was very surprised to see an airbed set up! There were at least two huge cold storage food coolers and the pavilion grill was fired up while another grill which they brought with them was also being used to feed the large group. It was clear to me that no other people at the park felt comfortable sitting in the shade providing pavillion since this group clearly had it fully in use. 

A few days later, I called the Park & Rec office to ask about rules for pavillion use. I was told that no sign-up for use is required; it is basically free and open to anyone in the park to use with no stipulations. The person I spoke with offered to check attendance records and reported that a large group of people had paid for out-of-town day passes on that Sunday. It was this large group, I believed that had come early in the day, set up the pavillion with their possessions, and taken it over for the entire day.

I wondered why an individual group, any group, whether townspeople or paying out-of-towners, should be allowed to take over this facility and have it all to themselves all day. Shouldn’t there be some rules for signing up and limiting the time it can be used for a single group? I think there should be. My hope in writing this is that you will look into the Parks and Recs policy regarding pavillion use.

I think use should be limited to two to three hours. I don’t think monitoring use would add an undue burden to the lifeguards’ duties to oversee signups and to note when the time limit is reached. The new policy could be posted at the pavillion advising the public about new regulations. I look forward to hearing from you regarding this proposal.  

Respectfully, Sheila Wakoff

P.S. Please note that I appreciate the time you all spend in service to the Town.

Parks & Recreation Director Steve Pierce responded to the complaint, first noting, “We’ve never had a concern like this in previous years.” He explained that “all groups using the pavilion, whether it’s the Wilton Dems, or a class from Cider Mill or Middlebrook, or a birthday party — they sign up to use that space, they pay to rent that space.”

Rental fees are determined in part by the number of gatherers that will attend and the need for any additional services like port-a-potties. Furthermore, all individuals or entities renting the pavilion are required to obtain a Certificate of Insurance for the intended use.

As for the suggestion to reassign lifeguards to oversee pavilion rental access, Pierce added, “Frankly, the job of the lifeguards is to watch the water.”

Bilella closed the topic noting, “It sounds to me like it’s something to keep an eye on, but there’s not much else to do.”

Wilton Baseball and Softball Association (WBSA)

Pierce then continued on the topic of correspondence to share that the Wilton Baseball and Softball Association (WBSA) had submitted a request to fund a new junior varsity batting cage, turf for the junior varsity and varsity batting cage and two extra hitting mats. The total cost that would be donated is $16,637.39.

The Commission voted unanimously to accept the donation and Commission Member Joseph Guglielmo thanked WBSA for its generosity.

Wilton Youth Sports Coalition

The Commission then welcomed Nick Gemelli, the president of Wilton Football and Cheer, and Chandra Ring, the president of Wilton Youth Field Hockey, representing the newly-formed Wilton Youth Sports Coalition, to give a presentation on the new organization.

Gemelli and Ring explained that they have joined together with the heads of Wilton’s recreational soccer, lacrosse, and baseball/softball programs to form a coalition whose mission is to seek public/private partnerships aimed at advancing Wilton’s sports infrastructure.

Gemelli explained the three types of work they see the coalition pursuing:

  • Yearly maintenance projects and costs
  • Annual capital projects
  • Long-range, multi-year capital projects

Commission member John Macken asked whether there were similar commissions or committees pursuing public/private partnership opportunities in nearby towns. Ring explained that both New Canaan and Darien have similar athletic community organizations.

Bilella asked for further explanation of the findings laid out in the presentation, specifically the claim that youth and high school sports participation has increased, despite the well-documented decline in school enrollment.

Gemelli noted that spring flag football saw a dramatic increase in participation this year, going from 120 players to 425. However, he noted, “Some parents are not comfortable playing flag football on certain fields. I can say more offline but I’ve heard hesitation from parents on partially patched grass, sticks, and other safety concerns in the town fields.”

Bilella urged the group to include the local basketball program as well: “When you get on the topic of lack of facilities, it isn’t just outdoors. The regulation basketball courts in town are grossly underserving, too.” She also urged Ring and Gemelli to follow the discussion at the Board of Selectmen about the 2022-2023 budget and “make sure you’re seeing the reality of the numbers.”

Ring assured the Commission that the coalition is in regular communication with all of the recreational leagues in town, regardless of membership, and that they are eager to continue conversations with both appointed and elected oversight groups in town.

“We are all volunteers,” said Gemelli. “But we have already started to engage people in the community. We’ve had conversations with various individuals at Wilton High School — both the athletics department and the administration — as well as booster club presidents, town leaders on the Board of Education and Board of Finance, and others. But support from the Parks and Recreation Department is of the utmost importance to us.”

Gemelli and Ring agreed to return to the Commission next month with further details.

Looking Ahead

Turning toward ongoing projects, Pierce announced that installation of the lightning detection system began earlier that day and is expected to wrap up next week. He also noted that the drainage and irrigation plan was presented to the BOS and that plans for the indoor field house are on hold until budget negotiations have concluded.

Finally, Pierce shared that several bids are in for a new playground for ages 5-12 at Merwin Meadows and an all-ages playground at Schenck’s Island. He forecast that as he and others review the potential bids, they may also find that different firms are right for one or the other project.

The next meeting of the Parks and Recreation Commission is scheduled for Wednesday, Apr. 13.