Belleair Commissioner Michael Wilkinson, left, and Parks and Recreation Director Eric Wahlbeck chat on the playground outside the Dimmitt Community Center.
BELLEAIR – At each Belleair Commission meeting the commissioners are asked to report on the activities of the various boards and committees they are involved with. Often, the Parks and Tree Board or the Finance Board or the Planning Board will have been inactive, leaving the appropriate commissioner with nothing to report.
That never happens with the Recreation Board, which means Commissioner Michael Wilkinson always has something to report.
Since he joined the Commission in 2010 Wilkinson, 48, has been the commission’s adviser on the Parks and Rec Board; he admits he is that Department’s biggest fan.
“When it is my turn at the commission meeting to speak to the commission and the audience I make sure I promote everything as best as I can,” he said. “I also make a point of congratulating the staff and volunteers who make it all happen.”
There is a lot to be thankful for. Serving a town of just more than 4,000 residents, the Dimmitt Community Center is considered a state-of-the-art recreational complex and the surrounding fields provide plenty of space for various sporting programs. Wilkinson said it is reflected in how the residents treat the facilities.
“We have our issues for sure, the Bluffs and the Biltmore Hotel, but people talk about the Rec center as the heart and soul of our town,” he said. “It is more than just Belleair; it is all the surrounding communities. It is the whole area; we bring everyone together not just Belleair but all around.”
The budget of the Parks and Rec Department is more than a $1 million a year, a healthy percentage of the total $7 million it takes to run the entire community. Of that amount $600,000 is what it takes to run the Rec side of things. Director Eric Wahlbeck said various fees and admission charges bring much of that in. Still, he said the recreation department is worth it.
“Residents here get a good bang for their buck in my opinion,” he said. “The recreation department has been around for a long time. Former Director John Yevich did a lot of work building up the programs and 10 or 12 years ago they decided they needed to raise money for a new facility and they did it.”
What they did was build the Dimmitt Community center and it opened in October of 2006. It cost $2.8 million, and according to Wahlbeck, was mostly paid for by a series of fundraisers and donations.
The building then attracted people of all ages to the facility and that in turn led to expanded programs and new events.
“Traditionally we did only stuff for kids,” said Wahlbeck. “Now we’ve added things for people of all ages. The concerts are a great example. We’ve really brought something to a broad spectrum of ages in our community, people use us to plan their weekends.”
The recreation department has survived and thrived, even during tough economic times. Wahlbeck said attempts at cutting back a while ago were met with resistance.
“The community pushed back, they wanted us to do it all and the community speaks,” he said.
One of the events that defines Belleair is Wednesday night flag football. It is something Wahlbeck looks at with amazement.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said. “It is a social experience; it is like a backyard picnic. Grandmas and Grandpas come out to root for the kids, others come to just watch the games and catch up with their neighbors and friends. It is where people go.”
Belleair resident Tiffanie Lopatin is one of the people who go to the Rec center every Wednesday, but not for flag football. Her sons go inside for Karate classes while flag football is going on outside.
“There is just no parking around the building on Wednesday evenings because of flag football,” she said. “But that is a great problem to have when demand is so high you can’t find parking.”
Lopatin has no issue with the size and scope of the recreation department no matter how much it costs.
“I am OK with that ambitious facility,” she said. “I don’t know of any inefficiencies that are being caused by the rec center. I don’t know of anything in town that is suffering because of it. I think the rec should continue to be a vital part of our community.
Lopatin lives on Ponce De Leon Boulevard. She has been to several commission meetings complaining about her children having to cross busy Indian Rocks Road to get to the rec center. She said that is the only complaint she has and is confident the commission will do something to make it safe for her sons, Sam, 9, and Ben, 8, to cross the street because it is important for them.
“I’m a working parent and it is important for me to have a safe place where my kids can go and where they want to go,” she said. “My husband and I have talked about moving but every time we have to ask ourselves where we would have something like this right in our backyard, it is part of what we love about Belleair and our kids love it.”
Which brings us back to Commissioner Wilkinson; who calls his participation on the Rec Board a perfect fit.
Before he became a commissioner he served on the board as a citizen. He has won coach of the year honors on more than one occasion for his participation in the programs and his three children have all participated in programs offered by the recreation department. He said none of it would be possible without the efforts of the staff and the volunteers.
“Everyone sees all these events and enjoy a fun two or three hours,
but what people don’t see are the months and months of planning to make it happen,” he said. “The rec board is so busy because there are so many events that go on. I know the time and dedication it takes, and the enthusiasm and pride.”
“The people drive what we do,” he said. “We have a strong advisory group that does a lot of work. They are an active group, they help a lot. What is really impressive is what we do and how much we do with how little we have in terms of bodies and money. We do a lot for the town and it is really cool to be part of it.”
Wahlbeck said there is no underestimating how important the Recreation Department is to the community.
“It is absolutely vital to the community,” he said. “We are the No. 1 provider for the emotional, social and physical activity for the town. We are responsible for the people’s well-being.”