LAKEWOOD RANCH — David Dees wants boys to play baseball.
So does Manatee County.
But a debate about signage at Lakewood Ranch Park may leave the dugouts empty, in the future, if issues cannot be resolved.
As Dees, president of the Lakewood Ranch Little League, walks past advertising signs hung along the park’s fence, he sees the only viable way for the league to pay its bills — advertisement.
The types of signs being used, however, as well as the way they’ve been attached to fences, violate county regulations. Officials say the signs — colorful advertisements paid for by companies such as Subway, Champs Sports, Best Buy and Publix — threaten player safety and pose other concerns.
Dees and fellow representatives of the league pled their case before Manatee County officials Feb. 12 — asking the county not to remove the signs on opening day, Feb. 16, as they’d been told would happen — and to allow for the signs to remain in place. Manatee County Parks and Recreation Director Cindy Turner advised commissioners the park’s signage still needs to comply with regulations, because the regulations are meant to protect players and county property.
By the end of the Feb. 12 Manatee County Board of County Commissioners meeting, Little League officials had agreed to adjust how signs are hung, getting rid of the 1.5-inch bolts the league had been using. County officials believe the bolts, which protrude from the fence, could injure players.
The league has ordered more of the smaller bolts — ones that lie flush against the fence — and will attach them to all of the signs this week, Dees said. The league refuses to use the zip ties required by county code, because of their fragility.
Signage can stay in place, for now, but Manatee County Administrator Ed Hunzeker will have the final say on its fate in the coming months, after he gathers information and develops a plan of action the league must follow.
League officials say they weren’t aware of the county’s signage requirements when they began soliciting advertisements about a year ago; they only knew they needed to raise more money to keep the baseball program going.
Costs for lights, used for weeknight play, are the league’s largest expense ($32,524) and have grown the most in recent years. The league operated at a $10,758 loss in 2012.
Facing a year ahead with increased expenses after the county forced leagues to pay their field’s utility fees in fall 2011, Dees searched for an alternative way to earn revenue.
Mark Caraher, the league’s fundraising chairman, got the idea for the permanent signs after seeing similar ones at Braden River High School and G.T. Bray Park, he said.
He and Dees quickly found advertisers willing to pay roughly $325 for a sign that costs $75 to make.
The signs earned the league $11,358 in revenue last year, a copy of the league’s 2012 financial statement show.
Dees and Caraher lined the signs across the two front fields’ fences, facing the walkway leading into the park, for maximum exposure, without first consulting the county’s manual for parks.
“We just wanted to make sure the kids could play baseball,” Dees said. “We didn’t know we were breaking the rules until the county showed up.”
The department’s Youth/Adult League Manual, written in 2003, says, “All (advertising) signs must be made of vinyl and have vents for air flow. Signs may not face outward toward a street or parking area.” Records show park officials also notified the league of problems with the signs.
Turner said Lakewood Ranch Little League’s signs violate county requirements on several levels — from material, to placement, to installation requirements. And the league, despite its financial situation, should comply, as other leagues are doing, with regulations, which are designed to protect patrons of the parks, as well as aesthetics.
The temporary fix alone isn’t enough.
“The policy we have works and has been working for many years,” Turner said. “We don’t endorse metal signs on a ball field because then you become a commercial advertising park.”
Dees knows what’s coming.
The league can join the state-wide trend and play day games on Saturdays, lowering lighting costs, but it is an idea he doesn’t like. Volunteers and families don’t want to lose their weekends, he said.
County officials suggest the league could host tournaments to raise funds, as well, but Dees said league families do not like that option.
Hunzeker said he will brainstorm ideas for generating revenue, while addressing the league’s sign issues. He also said he would evaluate potential changes, including revisions to the Youth/League Manual.
At first glance, however, Hunzeker said the county’s sign policy follows industry standard.
“Why can’t Lakewood Ranch make any money when others can?” Hunzeker asked. “They are swimming upstream on this one.”
Hunzeker plans to meet with Dees sometime before June, and he also will review a lengthy back-and-forth between the county and the league that started in May 2012 (see sidebar) before rendering a decision on the signage at Lakewood Ranch Park.
Note: Lakewood Ranch Little League kept its signs up through this entire process.
May 2012 — Marcus Francis, Parks and Recreation supervisor, visits Lakewood Ranch Park and notices the signs.
June 7, 2012 — Francis sends an email to all of the county’s Little Leagues reminding them to remove all signs and banners by June 22, marking the end of the spring season.
December 2012 — David Dees meets with Cindy Turner at the league’s fields.
Dec. 21, 2012 — After investigating the sign policies of other counties and the rules of McKechnie Field, the Pittsburgh Pirates spring-training facility, in Bradenton, Turner finds the policies to be similar and writes a letter to Dees ordering the removal of the league’s signs by Jan. 11.
Dec. 27, 2012 — Francis sends a similar email to all of the leagues, telling them to remove by Jan. 11 signs that don’t pass code, at which point the county would remove them.
January 2013 — Commissioner Vanessa Baugh visits the fields, at the league’s request. The issue is referred to the County Attorney’s Risk Management Division for review.
Feb. 5, 2013 — A letter Turner wrote to Dees confirms findings from the county attorney, who found the signs in violation of county rules, and orders the signs’ removal by Feb. 15.
Feb. 6, 2013 — Francis makes the same request to all of the leagues in an email.