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Many teams feel excluded at the Overland Park Soccer Complex

Johnson County ranks second in the nation for the number of soccer players per capita, government and soccer officials say.

So is it any wonder that one of the hottest disputes in the county involves soccer?

There’s plenty of contention on the field, but it’s a battle for the fields themselves in Overland Park that has ignited passions among soccer aficionados.

Some local teams are crying foul because they can’t get practice time on some wonderful new fields built with public money at the Overland Park Soccer Complex.

Instead, Overland Park officials struck a deal with the Blue Valley Soccer Club before the complex opened in 2009, giving the club a monopoly over most of the practice fields.

The verbal agreement allowed Blue Valley rights to nine of the 12 soccer fields for practice during the week, leaving about 20 clubs and their teams to fight over the remaining three fields.

In addition, Blue Valley gets a discount rate. While other clubs pay $40 an hour for a field, Blue Valley pays $30 an hour, as does one smaller club.

“It is big business,” said Kevin Corbett, Olathe parks and recreation director. “That is what is at the core of what is going on at the Overland Park Soccer Complex.”

Overland Park officials acknowledge they have received complaints about the Blue Valley deal, but they say there’s nothing wrong with it. When the decision was made, Blue Valley was the largest club in the area, and it still is.

“Blue Valley was identified as a partner and significant tenant early on,” said Adam Norris, assistant city manager. “They also have the most Overland Park residents of any other club.”

And once a team gets a practice time, it’s forever, said Mike LaPlante, the soccer complex manager, unless, of course, the team decides it no longer wants to practice there. That means Blue Valley will have the nine fields indefinitely.

Not-so-lucky coaches say giving Blue Valley most of the fields is unfair.

John Duker, a coach for the Kansas City Soccer Club, said “the majority of our kids” live in the Blue Valley area.

But Duker said his players have to go to Missouri to practice. “We’re paying Missouri for field rental when we could be spending the money in the state of Kansas,” Duker said.

Blue Valley doesn’t always use its nine fields, several coaches said. But if a team tries to use one of the empty fields, they are told to leave.

“They get upset if you get on them,” Duker said. True, Blue Valley paid to rent the fields, he said, “but it’s not like you are going to hurt the turf. It makes no sense.”

Blue Valley’s executive director, Peter Vermes, did not return telephone calls requesting an interview. Vermes is coach/general manager for Sporting KC.

Several coaches and soccer administrators upset with the deal spoke about it but did not want to be identified. One said “it would kill me and my family” in the soccer community.

Overland Park built the complex because it saw a big business venture — large weekend tournaments drawing travelers to the city’s hotels.

The city used bonds to pay $36 million for 12 fields using synthetic turf that allows games and practices in any type of weather. The complex includes 900 parking spaces and a multipurpose field house of about 15,000 square feet, containing meeting rooms, locker rooms and offices. The money is being paid back with a hotel tax and other funding.

Initially in 2007, city officials sought advice from the Blue Valley Soccer Club and Heartland Soccer Association, which is the umbrella group that represents about 10,000 players in more than a half-dozen Johnson County soccer clubs, including Blue Valley.

Officials said the priority of the complex was economic development, but the second priority was to make every effort to accommodate local soccer, including Heartland and a couple of its members, Blue Valley and Overland Park soccer clubs.

“The facility was in great demand from the beginning before it opened,” said John Nachbar, former city manager and now city manager for Culver City, Calif.

He is not surprised by the current friction.

“With the popularity, it is very understandable for that dynamic to exist,” he said.

So how did Blue Valley get the majority of practice fields? There are differences of opinion about that.

City officials said before the complex was built, they asked teams to commit up front — write a check — to reserve practice fields.

The officials said when clubs learned the cost for practice fields, only a few stepped forward. Blue Valley agreed to take nine of the 12 fields that first year, they said.

Because of Blue Valley’s commitment, city officials gave Blue Valley a discount of $10 an hour.

“No one was shut out of the process,” Nachbar said.

But several coaches and club administrators say they were never offered the practice fields before the complex opened.

At the same time, Blue Valley told the city it would lease office space in the new field house.

“It was heavily negotiated,” Nachbar recalled. The city gave Blue Valley a 10-year contract requiring $3,195 a month for the 2,739 square feet of office space. But the field house space was never offered publicly.

Experts say it’s unclear whether the city is receiving the most money it could for the office space.

“It is a transparency and openness question,” said Mike Purdy, a Seattle-based consultant and teacher of ethics regarding public contracts when asked about the Overland Park situation. “Everybody should have a shot at it.”

Steve Lampone, Kansas City parks director, said the situation is different in Kansas City. When building space is leased, it is put up for bids “so that the city can be sure they are receiving the most viable beneficial proposal, the best bang for the buck.”

Olathe entered into a partnership with the Kansas Rush soccer club when the city built soccer fields at Lone Elm Park several years ago. But Kansas Rush gave $200,000 to help pay for the construction and had players go door-to-door to promote a park tax increase, Corbett said.

“They gave hard cash and they secured donations,” Corbett said. “We now have entered into a new agreement with them; they pay us as a user.”

As for the fields, Shawnee deals with demand differently.

With many teams vying for baseball fields for practice, the city does a lottery each spring. Teams with 50 percent Shawnee players get first preference. Everyone pays the same, said Tony Lecuru, Shawnee parks deputy director.

And field assignments are not permanent.

“That would be unfair,” Lecuru said.

At the Overland Park complex, the Kansas City Football Club is planning to merge with Blue Valley in part because it will be able to practice at the complex.

“There is a dearth of fields to play on,” said Huw Williams, KCFC’s technical director.

There’s no dispute over whether the complex is a success. According to city numbers, almost a million people visited it in 2011.

At an upcoming tournament, more than 300 teams from 12 states will be attending, said Shane Hackett, Heartland Soccer Association’s director.

“This is a world-class facility,” he said. “If there was any way to get six to eight more fields, we would fill them with no problem whatsoever.”

The Star’s Dave Helling contributed to this report.