Tom Wenger cuts a distinctive figure inside Durham’s W.D. Hill Recreation Center. With a head of shiny white hair, the seventy-two-year-old has been playing soccer in Durham longer than many of his teammates have been alive.
But Wenger can hold his own. That much is clear from the bleachers of W.D. Hill’s indoor basketball courts, where a handful of friends and family have gathered to watch the championship game of the winter futsal season. Futsal is like soccer, but on a smaller, grassless surface using a smaller ball. As the game begins, the sounds on the center’s basketball court are familiar: players yell for the ball over the squeak of rubber-soled athletic shoes on laminated finish.
The red-shirted Olympiakos, Wenger’s team, play well before conceding a string of goals around halftime. Losing the last game of the season is disappointing, but Wenger won’t have to wait long to try his luck again. In a couple days, he’ll strap on his cleats for a weekly pick-up soccer game hosted early Sunday mornings at Old North Durham Park.
“To me, soccer feels like a Durham sport,” Wenger says. “The bottom line, though, is that if you look at the size of the community in Durham, we have way fewer soccer fields than we have population.”
Wenger’s concerns are mirrored by other members of Durham’s soccer community, which, fueled by rising interest, has grown to encompass new adult and youth leagues, a semi-professional team called the Tobacco Road Football Club, and a chapter of the U.S. national team’s supporters’ group, American Outlaws.
Durham should have more than double the amount of soccer fields available, according to Tom Dawson, the assistant director of the Durham Parks and Recreation Department. Currently, Durham has nine fields that could be used for soccer, he says. Judging by metrics from the National Recreation and Parks Association, a national organization that accredits parks and recreation agencies, a city with Durham’s population should have about twenty-three fields that could be used for soccer.
Now, Parks and Rec is looking to tackle that deficiency with expanded athletic facilities around Durham, including a new park near Hoover Road in east Durham and the development of soccer fields at Herndon Park.
The proposed site on Hoover Road, across the street from Wheels Fun Park on Cheek Road, would include multiple grass or turf fields, along with trails, bathrooms, and other park facilities.
That sounds fine to Alex Barbee, fourteen, who lives nearby. On a street off of Cheek Road, Barbee shoots hoops into a rundown basketball rim used by the kids in his neighborhood, a quiet, dead-end gravel lane with single-story homes on one side and an empty lot on the other. Barbee is looking forward to football tryouts at his high school in the spring and playing soccer in the summer. But besides the lone portable basketball hoop, space for athletics outside of school are limited, he says.
Barbee’s neighbors agree. Donald Chandler has raised his kids there for the past five years. He says the neighborhood gets a bad reputation because of low-income housing up the street, but his bigger issue is the lack of parks. Sherwood Park, just a mile down the road, lacks adequate facilities for children, he says.
“I actually take my kids way across town to Duke Park, because there are no parks over here,” Chandler says. “It’s needed on this side of town.”
Soccer groups in Durham say they’d welcome more venues for the sport.
Cedric Burke, head coach and sporting director of Tobacco Road FC, which plays in professional soccer’s fourth division, says the lack of field space can make scheduling time difficult. Usually he has to schedule time on Durham fields six month in advance, and last-minute changes are very hard to make.
Burke doesn’t blame Parks and Rec for the trouble. It’s the explosive growth of soccer in Durham and across the country that stretched the existing facilities to the limit, he says.
David Fellerath, an active member of Durham’s soccer community (and former INDY arts editor), echoes Burke’s sentiments. He cofounded Durham Atlético, a soccer organization that runs the adult soccer leagues in Durham, in which Wenger’s Olympiakos compete. Since 2015, Durham Atlético has added four adult soccer leagues and grown from fifty players to around three hundred. Fellerath and Atlético cofounder Kosta Harlan sit on the city’s Recreation Advisory Commission.
Fellerath points to the availability of soccer facilities in surrounding counties as part of the reason for lack of field space. That has helped mitigate demand here in Durham, he says. But the need is still there.
“Having more capacity is just vital,” Fellerath says. “And what I love about the new space is that it’s in an underdeveloped and lower-income part of Durham. It’s located in a community that needs quality recreation space and is accessible from most parts of Durham.”
That is an important part of the equation for Parks and Rec. The proposed park needs to contribute to the equal distribution of park resources across the city. Durham presents a unique problem in this area, which Dawson says partly stems from the city’s industrial beginnings. During Durham’s early development as a hub of tobacco and manufacturing, train lines and warehouse districts took precedence over parks and trails.
Though the Hoover Park proposal is a priority, Dawson says, it is several steps away from becoming real. The plan is currently going through a public input process and then must get approval from the relevant city government committees and find funding. But the city council, Durham’s newly elected mayor, and members of the city’s Recreation Advisory Commission have responded positively to the idea.
Asked how likely it is that this new park will come to fruition, Mayor Steve Schewel replies, “Ninety-nine percent.”
Schewel’s pitch during the campaign included expanding green spaces and tree canopies. “That means trails and parks,” he says. “It means sidewalks, it means the tree canopy, and all those things that are very, very important to the health and quality of life in the neighborhood.”
Soccer fields are one of those assets Durham needs to work on, Schewel says.
Accessibility, land availability, and cost pose challenges to Durham’s park proposals. And finding flat land large enough area for several soccer fields is difficult given Durham’s explosive growth, Dawson says.
In that sense, Hoover Park is ahead of the game.
The proposal, one of many projects included in this year’s capital improvement plan, was sent to the Recreation Advisory Commission on January 10 as part of the public input process. The committee has since reviewed the plan and named it a top priority.
Simultaneously, the city is seeking additional funds from national and state grants to make the project proposal more appealing, including an NPRA grant in collaboration with the Disney company worth $20,000 and a Park and Recreation Trust Fund state grant.
“We just want to show to city council that it is not just them funding everything,” Dawson says.