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Rohnert Park set to unveil new futsal courts at renovated park

Where most people saw a crumbling, neglected tennis court at a park in one of Rohnert Park’s oldest neighborhoods, Rancho Cotate High School boys soccer coach Nick Rogers saw opportunity.

His vision, developed over the past 18 months with two local nonprofits and the city, is about to become reality at Alicia Park, where the North Bay’s first courts for futsal, or street soccer, are taking shape.

“Everybody saw trash, I saw treasure,” said Rogers, 28, a professional street soccer player. “It was just cracks and rocks, and was a mess. But my hope was to show the city the possibility. It’s been an ongoing battle of finding a free and safe place for kids to play, so that was my whole mission in building this field.”

Following construction this week at the park in Rohnert Park’s A Section neighborhood, the pair of repurposed acrylic courts awaits only striping and a planned mural — and eased pandemic restrictions — before it is ready to host workshops, tournaments and regular pick-up matches.

For Frankie Lemus, a nearly lifelong Rohnert Park resident and president of the nonprofit Latino Alliance, the project symbolizes a long overdue rejuvenation of the city’s southwest corner. The area of town — recently formalized as District 1 in new district-based elections for seats on the City Council — has the largest concentration of Latino residents, who comprise about 30% of Rohnert Park’s population. For years, it has lost out in city spending decisions, he said.

“It’s just been ignored. It’s been forgotten,” said Lemus, 45, who grew up in the city’s neighboring B Section that makes up the other half of District 1. “For me, this project is not about Latinos. It’s about the whole community. So it could be Asian kids, white kids, Black kids, Latino kids. It’s going to bring back this lifestyle of kids going back to the park. That’s what I can’t wait to see happen.”

The city has over the past three years made several upgrades to utilities and public infrastructure in the A and B Section neighborhoods, including at Alicia Park, a city spokesman said. Rohnert Park staff oversaw the resurfacing on the tennis court that will transition it to soccer-only play, and the city’s nonprofit foundation arm also provided Rogers with a $2,500 grant to bring prominent Los Angeles artist Geoff Gouveia up for the future mural at the futsal facility.

But neighbors have long complained that the park, next to John Reed Elementary, is a hangout for homeless people, at a hot zone for drug deals and gang activity. Less than two weeks ago, two male victims were shot by a 19-year-old suspect in what police described as a “planned attack” just a block away from Alicia Park.

The Latino Alliance, which Lemus co-founded with his wife, Shelly Gomez, and family friends Maria and Darlene Sandoval, recently adopted the park in a bid to make improvements and restore it to the place he remembers frequenting as a child to play baseball and soccer.

“People find needles in the sand (pit), so their kids can’t play,” Lemus said. “Being more present at that park and having a more active role is going to get rid of this. We’re putting in the effort to bring the park back to life, and then they’ll start to respect the park a little more.”

The initiative has the backing of Councilman-elect Willy Linares, 36, who next month will become just the second-ever Latino representative on the City Council in Rohnert Park’s 58-year history. The two-year resident of the city’s B Section is a member of the Latino Alliance and he chipped in last weekend helping with cleanup of the park, including repainting benches and removing graffiti.

“I’m thrilled that we’re able to bring this to our residents, especially our youth,” Linares said. “We need more places for them to play the game that they love. A project like this can revitalize parks and neighborhoods. Maybe some people see this just as futsal courts, but I see this as a step in making our city more inclusive.”

Rogers and fellow Rancho Cotate soccer coaches Daniel Theobald and Kevin McKeon are looking forward to using the space to teach the freestyle game of panna that emphasizes ball tricks and creativity.

Rohnert Park also is applying for millions of dollars in state grant funding to make future renovations at Alicia Park. The city has conducted five community meetings to gather input on what residents would like to see in the way of new or upgraded features at the park. Plans call for a playground built for children with disabilities, a community garden, splash pad and social gathering space.

In the meantime, the new lighted futsal courts were made possible by about $100,000 in grant funding from Sonoma County-based nonprofit The Goals Foundation. In partnership with the U.S. Soccer Foundation’s “It’s Everyone’s Game” campaign, the group hopes to make the futsal courts the first of 20 in the region — and a model for other cities and counties to follow.

“This is the perfect site. It was so run-down and the area needs something like that, because obviously it was not utilized for tennis and was just an eyesore out there,” said local businessman Andrew Rowley, a diehard soccer supporter who is president of The Goals Foundation, which he co-founded with his wife, Monica Flores Rowley. “When areas are not utilized, the opposite happens and it attracts undesirables, and nothing good happens with those facilities. To be able to transform it into what it will be shortly is just going to be amazing for that local area.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

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