Plan leaves fate of memorial uncertain

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Plan leaves fate of memorial uncertainMurmurs of unrest rippled through the local soccer community at the news that the city planned to evict city and community leagues from their long-time home at LeRoy Jackson Sports Complex — calling into question the field’s status as a memorial to the late Matt Armstrong.

Ken Armstrong, whose family is credited with helping to launch and maintain local youth soccer programs in the Indian Wells Valley since the 1950s, received a call from Ridgecrest Parks and Rec-reation Director Jim Ponek last week, when he learned that the soccer fields — which the city had previously maintained under an agreement with property owner Kern County — were to be converted into football fields.

Ponek said that soccer clubs could have a smaller number of fields at the Kerr McGee Sports Complex — the current home of youth football and baseball — and at Freedom Park — which has not yet been developed for soccer.

“I don’t have a problem with Jim Ponek personally,” said Ken. “He’s helped us for years with our soccer tournaments. But this year a lot of things have happened that I just don’t understand.”

The city dedicated the field in honor of Matt Armstrong — who died suddenly of meningococcemia at age 17 — in 1996.

“Ponek called and asked me what he should do with the monument. I told him I needed to talk to my family and think about it,” said Ken.

“I really don’t think that his memorial should be at a football field. We are a soccer family. Even so, that monument doesn’t belong to us it belongs to the community. I think it should be where the soccer community can see it.”

Armstrong said that even before the announcement about removing the memorial, coordinators of the annual Armstrong Memorial Tournament ran into complications in staging the May event at the Armstrong field. Each year the tournament attracts hundreds of players and thousands of spectators and raises thousands of dollars for Burroughs High School athletes.

“This was our 17th tournament. Every other year we have had a lot of help from the city. This year we first noticed problems when we had a walk through at the fields and we realized all the grass was dead.”

When Armstrong confronted Ponek, the director blamed budget cuts. (The City Council approved funding for watering and maintenance. Ponek has not said where funding for those line items was diverted.)

“All I know is that there was no way we could play soccer there,” said Armstrong. He approached BHS Athletic Director Robert Campbell, who said that the school would be happy to host the event since the money raised benefited the students.

“So I went back to Ponek to ask if we could borrow the goals, and he said no.” A soccer parent raised the concerns about the city’s lack of support for the tournament during public comment at a City Council meeting.

“The very next day Ponek called and said he got ripped a new one,” said Armstrong. Ponek then told Armstrong he would allow the group to borrow the city’s goals as long as they made a deposit against damage and moved them back the day after the tournament was over.

Armstrong said that Burroughs has agreed to permanently host the tournament. But he remains concerned about the future of youth soccer.

“Ponek called me and told me we could have one and a half soccer fields at Freedom Park, even though he knows we have four in our current location,” he said. Then there is the matter that Freedom Park is currently dedicated as a veterans memorial, and would need hundreds of thousands in investments to be outfitted with lighting and field prep.

“I would not be allowed to run my business like that, I am not sure why this is being allowed in City Hall.”

Ken’s mother, Kathy, who has been a fixture in cultural development in the community since moving here in the 1950s, said she was stunned by the way the city has handled the situation.

“I don’t know how the council can sit there and watch this happen and not do anything. Aren’t they supposed to oversee what happens in our city at every level? Or do they just sit there and watch everything go down the tubes? Is this how our government is supposed to work?” said Kathy.

“And it’s not just soccer, we are losing all of our youth programs. When I first came to the valley we got together and started things because we knew the community needed it. This is a community of people who come together to build things, and the current director is not allowing them to participate.

“Can you blame people for being up in arms about what has happened? To us it looks like we have to start over from scratch now. If we do, I’ll be there to help. I think a lot of people feel the same way.”

Ponek was contacted by the News Review, but declined to comment on the situation.

Story First Published: 2013-07-17