It was supposed to be a field of dreams: a lush playground for sports and recreation for Rutgers-Camden students and city residents.
For years, the community park, a 5.5-acre site in the city's Cooper-Grant neighborhood, has been a popular spot for soccer, softball, and Little League games for both crowds. The complex includes tennis courts and a playground.
Years in the making, the public park filled two needs when it opened in 2001: finally, a place for the Scarlet Raptors sports teams to play and practice, and more desperately needed recreational space for the city's youngsters and other residents.
But some residents recently complained that they have been locked out of the park, at Second and Pearl Streets in the shadow of the Ben Franklin Bridge just across from the Delaware River and adjacent to the university campus in downtown Camden. The fenced-in park is padlocked when not in use.
The $5.2 million park project was funded with public money through the state's Green Acres Program, which requires it to be preserved for recreation and conservation. As a consequence, the state requires that all New Jersey residents have "reasonable public access."
The state Department of Environmental Protection agreed with residents that public access had not been maintained and ordered the city to quickly restore access. It also expressed concern that the facilities were being used exclusively by Rutgers sports team programs.
"These facilities are fenced in with a locked gate," Judeth Piccinini Yeany, acting director of the Green Acres Program, wrote in a March 22 letter to Camden Mayor Frank Moran obtained by the Inquirer and Daily News.
The notice could jeopardize the city's four pending Green Acres projects totaling more than $2.6 million to develop parks elsewhere in Camden. But city officials said the matter would be resolved within a few days.
"It's a problem. It's being fixed," city spokesman Vince Basara said this week. "We want the residents to use the park."
Signs posted at the park provide a telephone number for community access by calling the Rutgers Athletics and Recreation Services Department, but when state officials placed calls to the number, they were unable to reach anyone, Yeany said. There was no information on websites for the city or Rutgers on how to access the facilities, she said.
"Therefore, it appears that no information on scheduling or access can be gained from this number without leaving a message," Yeany wrote. "These conditions do not meet our threshold for providing 'reasonable public access' and are not acceptable communications with the community."
Mike Sepanic, a Rutgers-Camden spokesman, said the telephone number was recently changed and the signs had not been updated. New signs will be posted soon and information about how to schedule time in the park will be posted on the school's website.
"It was a stupid mistake," Sepanic said. "We do need to keep working on ways that more and more people can use it."
It was unclear how long residents had been unable to access the park. Sepanic noted that there is a standing reservation for residents to use the field on Sunday afternoons for soccer games. The college also makes other facilities such as the gym available to residents, he said.
"In a city with limited open public recreation space, access to community space is something that is on our radar," Jonathan Latko, president of the Cooper-Grant Neighborhood Association, said in a statement.
In a March 11 Facebook post, soccer enthusiast Gabriel Chacon wrote: "Rutgers didn't tell me they're on Spring Break, so there's no one to open up the field this Sunday or next Sunday."
Camden received grants and loans to acquire two parcels that it donated to Rutgers for the project. The funds were also to develop the park, including artificial turf and lighting for nighttime events. Rutgers, which owns the majority of the property, maintains and operates the park and last year spent $1 million to replace the turf.
William Butler, who has played soccer at the park once a week for about five years, said he has not had any difficulty getting access to the field. "Rutgers has been nothing but generous to our neighborhood. I think they do their best."
Sue Altman, who has lived in the neighborhood for several years, said she was unaware that residents could use the park. The park would make a great workout spot, she said.
"Public parks are at the heart of what makes a community," she said.
Before the park opened, Rutgers-Camden was the only four-year university in the state without athletic fields. Campbell's Field, a minor-league baseball stadium, also opened in 2001 and the university's Division III men's baseball team currently plays there.
Last year, the city announced plans to raze Campbell's Field and replace it with a sports complex operated and maintained by Rutgers. The complex may include fields for field hockey, lacrosse, and soccer and would be open year-round. It would be open to city youth groups free of charge.
The city said it would seek to recoup the $7.5 million it would put into the deal by applying for public funds through grants from the state's Green Acres program. The city has said it hopes to open the new facilities for the 2019 college baseball season.