Del Dal Pra at Count Basie Park, where the stadium football field was prepped for installation of a new surface last week. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge.)
By JOHN T. WARD
Early on in his new job as Red Bank parks and recreation director, Louis ‘Del’ Dal Pra suspected he’d have to make changes that would tick some people off.
Two encounters this spring convinced him he had no choice.
Dal Pra at the marker commemorating Count Basie Park. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge.)
Incident One: In late April, just days after learning he’d won the job, Dal Pra – then Red Bank Regional High’s athletic director – stopped for ice cream in a neighboring town and encountered a crowd of kids and parents celebrating a sports milestone. The kids were clad in uniforms emblazoned with “Red Bank” and the team name.
Dal Pra, his face partially covered by an anti-pandemic mask, asked where in town they lived.
“A mom looked at me and goes, ‘Oh no, we’re not from Red Bank, we just use their fields,'” Dal Pra told redbankgreen. “It was kind of like, ‘keep it a secret.’ I’m thinking, this lady has no idea who she’s talking to.”
Dal Pra said he’d suspected the kids weren’t from Red Bank, “but I had no idea it was that wide-open, that someone would say ‘oh, we just use them.'”
Incident Two: One night shortly after he started on the job, Dal Pra was called on a report of kids smoking marijuana at Count Basie Park. He arrived to find eight high schoolers, “cleats on, shin guards on, balls in their hand” and reeking of pot, while all around them, ballfields were in use by out-of-town teams. He asked the kids what they were thinking.
“They said, ‘Coach, we have no where else to go,'” Dal Pra said. “One kid looks at me and says, ‘it’s not fair. They get the turf and the lights, and we get the dirt and the dark.'”
While he didn’t condone the use of weed, Dal Pra said the incident underscored the adage about idle hands being the devil’s workshop. And he “had to agree,” he said, that borough kids were getting the short shrift.
“This kid’s right,” he said. “The town’s collecting fees from travel teams, but is it right that our kids have nowhere to go, when we built this beautiful facility for them? I’m going to be part of the problem, not part of the solution, if I let this keep going on,” he said.
Last month, with the backing of the borough council, Dal Pra laid out new priorities for field usage. Dubbed “Red Bank First,” his directive ends a two-decade period in which borough ballfields have been ceded to out-of-town organizations that pay far less than they’d be charged at nearby private facilities.
The new policy gives first dibs at Basie Park to teams whose rosters are entirely made up of town children: borough rec and public school teams; Red Bank Football Club, a travel soccer club that’s “100-percent Red Bank,” said Dal Pra; five American Youth Football (formerly Pop Warner) teams, and others.
Separately, the borough – which leases the facility from the local school district –subleases the stadium football field and baseball fields to Red Bank Catholic High, which contributes to capital upkeep.
“No one’s kicked out,” said Dal Pra. “However, when I do the scheduling now, the 100-percent Red Bank teams get the field when they want.”
If fields are available, he’ll offer them to out-of-town organizations, with priority given to those with Red Bank representation, he said.
“I’m all for kids playing, no matter where they’re from,” Dal Pra told the council at its July workshop session. “But I work for Red Bank, I live in Red Bank and I coach in Red Bank, and that’s why I wanted to take care of our kids first.”
“It’s about time that was implemented, and we all appreciate it,” said Mayor Pasquale Menna.
The 56-year-old Dal Pra is a 25-year borough resident, 20-year member of the rec committee and multi-sport coach at the youth and high-school levels. As the father of two sons who play sports, he also had a parent’s view of the department’s operations when he stepped into the job last held by Charlie Hoffmann, who left to become Rumson’s rec director in April.
Still, Dal Pra said he made the changes only after reviewing the rosters of all 38 teams that use the facility. Seventeen were soccer squads, and of those, 10 had no Red Bank players, he said.
“We are kind of soccer town,” he said, but teams from as far away as Freehold and Barnegat were monopolizing fields.
He said his predecessors in the job “didn’t do anything wrong,” but conditions had evolved over time to the point where borough kids were being squeezed out.
The issue dates back to 2000, when the borough spent $300,000 to install field lighting, and later turfed over worn grass fields. Travel teams that previously shunned Red Bank began vying for practice and game times, said Dal Pra.
Also appealing: the clubs pay Red Bank about $50 per hour, compared to $200 per hour they might pay at private sports facilities that have popped up in Monmouth County in recent years.
At some point in the past, prior to his arrival, the department began registering out-of-town teams as “Red Bank” teams: collecting fees and paying each team’s expenses for league membership, referees and such, Dal Pra said. Contrary to the claims of some teams, he said, “Red Bank wasn’t making anything out of it.”
Dal Pra said he’s gotten a pushback from travel soccer and other organizations. Even some relatives aren’t too happy with his decision, he said, “but we have to make this stand. I know in my heart of hearts that we’re doing the right thing, because not one Red Bank kid has been affected. It’s only benefitted them.”
The policy became effective immediately. For now, the stadium field at Basie is closed while a replacement surface is being installed under a contract that predates Dal Pra’s hiring.
Other improvements are coming. Dal Pra said he ordered new hoops and stanchions for the basketball courts his first day on the job, and the borough plans to pursue a grant to refurbish the grandstand. Longer-range, Dal Pra said he hopes to formulate a 10- or 15-year plan for borough parks and rec facilities.
He’s also addressed a pet peeve: seeing the lights left on until 10 p.m. at Basie Park even during driving rain and snowstorms. He now has an app on his cellphone that enables him to override the timer and shut them off.
At the July council session, Dal Pra proposed turning off the lights when no teams were scheduled to use the facility, but Councilman Michael Ballard pushed back, expressing concern about a “chilling effect” of the lights going off when a parent wants to use the facility to throw a ball with a child.
Dal Pra agreed, and said he would leave the lights on except in weather when no park users would be expected.