OKEECHOBEE — Okeechobee County commissioners Thursday decided not to demolish the racquetball courts at the Okeechobee County Darrell Enfinger Sports Complex. Commissioners voted 3-2 to take the courts off the county’s “surplus” list.
The commission had considered demolishing the concrete structure due to continuing problems there.
At the Thursday meeting, Commissioner Bryant Culpepper said he often takes his grandchildren to the Wooden Jungle. He said he walks through the area to make sure it is safe. The racquetball courts are a continuing problem, he said.
“That facility is used as a bordello. It is used for drugs. It is horrible in there,” he said. “They found razor blades put in the grooves on the concrete.” He said some families no longer use the playground because of the frightening things that go on at the nearby racquetball courts.
Commissioner Brad Goodbread said after the proposal to demolish the racquetball courts was put on the county agenda, he started hearing from people who want to save the courts.
“I was under the impression it was being used for a lot of nefarious activity,” he said. “There are people speaking out they would like to use it to play racquetball.
He said he favors rehabilitating the structure “as long as we can keep it safe and monitor it.
“We’re going to have to rule with a heavier hand in situations like that where a minority of people are trying to mess it up for everyone,” he said.
“We’ve got to be able to manage and monitor the property and see to it that bad things aren’t happening there.”
Okeechobee Parks and Recreation director Denise Whitehead said security cameras will cost $7,000 to $10,000.
“Cameras that have the ability to identify people need to be higher resolution,” she said.
She said the last time doors were installed on the racquetball court structure, the cost of materials was about $2,500 per door, and they were quickly broken.
The doors were last replaced in 2016. Within 48 hours, vandals had ripped out the wood and the glass was shot out.
“My major concern is that families and people feel safe on our properties,” said Commissioner Goodbread. “We need to do what it takes to make it safe.”
Ms. Whitehead said the parks department needs the tools and the resources to keep the facilities safe.
“We need to provide her the tools,” agreed Commission Chair Terry Burroughs. “If we provide her all the tools, she can accomplish that.”
“If I have the resources to really harden that facility, it’s possible at a cost,” said Ms. Whitehead. “There is going to be considerable cost involved with leaving those courts standing,” she said, noting it has to be safe for the kids who are playing 20 feet away.
“The last time we replaced the doors there, within weeks the doors were damaged and within months they were almost inoperable,” she said.
“If it is not secure enough from the very beginning, we are going to face a constant battle.”
Commissioner Kelly Owens said the racquetball courts have been a problem for more than 20 years. She remembered taking students there when she was a teacher.
“We routinely would have to make sure elementary students were not anywhere near those racquetball courts,” she said. “When I have swept the area, I would find used condoms and dirty needles.”
She said she does not think the county has sufficient staff to monitor it the way it needs to be monitored.
The reality is you can have all of the laws, all of the restrictions you want to, but if they are not enforced, nothing changes, said Commissioner Bryant. “The cameras at Lock 7, we actually videotaped a person tearing it up, and that person was not prosecuted.”
Chairman Burroughs asked for a plan for the parks.
Ms. Whitehead said about two weeks ago, the recreation department did a utilization review of the sports complex, the ball fields and Kiwanis Park to determine how many people use the facilities and how they use the facilities.
“We’re trying to determine what the public wants to use the parks for,” she explained.
“The community has resoundingly come back with support for a splash pad,” said Ms. Whitehead.
She added she was surprised how many people were just enjoying picnic tables and walking around. “You’d be surprised how many members of the community just want to have their lunch in the park. We don’t have enough picnic tables. We don’t have enough benches. We don’t have enough fitness trails.”
She said more room is also needed for those who want to play soccer. County staff found kids playing soccer on softball fields and in open areas.
“We saw them playing soccer everywhere,” she said.
As far as the racquetball court use, over a five-day period, staff only recorded four people actually playing racquetball on the courts. Eight people were found doing “other things” during that period.
Ms. Whitehead said her preference would be to tear down the existing racquetball courts and build a rec center with indoor, multi-use courts that could be used for racquetball.
“Our parks are extraordinarily crowded,” she said.
Items on her wish list include additional softball and baseball fields, a fitness trail in the wooded area between the pool and U.S. 441 N., and a splash pad as an extension to the Wooden Jungle playground.
Chairman Burroughs suggested they add security camera and secure doors on the racquetball courts so they can be used until the county comes up with an overall plan. He suggested a key system for the racquetball players.
“In the meantime, put together a strategic plan for the facility,” he said.
“We’ve got people putting together leagues, ready to play,” said Commissioner Hazellief.
“There’s got to be a crack-down on the people that are coming there with ill intention or nefarious activity,” said Commissioner Goodbread. “If we can do a better job of monitoring the property and controlling the property, we will have less of a chance of somebody trying to beat the doors in.”
Commissioner Hazellief added the county should come up with a list of rules regarding reasons people can be trespassed from the sports complex during the daytime.
The commissioners voted 3-2 to take the racquetball courts off the county’s surplus list (which would have allowed demolition of the structures.) Commissioners Owens and Culpepper voted against the motion.