With the most land and fastest-growing population in Cape May County, officials in Middle Township have had big plans to accommodate more outdoor recreation for a long time.
In 2003, the township acquired an 82-acre former farm, rodeo site and campground on Fulling Mill Road in Rio Grande for $1.1 million, immediately doubling its open-space inventory. Leaders said it would house a variety of athletic fields, basketball courts, hockey rinks, restrooms, wildlife observatories and nature trails.
A decade later, little has happened. Instead of fulfilling the needs of youth sports teams, it has mainly served as a place for teenagers to party.
Recent months have brought renewed focus on opening the park, but now it’s a matter of Middle’s various groups competing for a chance to use it.
“Everybody and their brother wants this park,” said Mike Granigan, president of Cape Express Soccer Club, a local youth sports organization that has been trying to work out a long-term agreement with the township to use and maintain the facility.
The property is popularly referred to as Fort Apache, the name of the former campground there, but it is officially named the Robert “Ockie” Wisting Recreation Complex, in memory of a longtime Rio Grande firefighter who died in 2006.
Of the parcel’s 82 acres, a small portion is dry land usable for sports. Most of it is woods and wetlands, with a large pond and creek running through it.
The state Department of Environmental Protection’s Green Acres program provided hundreds of thousands of dollars for the land’s preservation, and the city has paid more than $1 million for various improvements and engineering work.
That money went to seeding, grading the ground and building a parking lot, but the complex is still not complete.
Cape Express proposes to continue improving the ground at its own expense to accommodate the nearly 300 young athletes in its organization, but other groups have raised questions about the proposed agreement.
Barbara Cresse, president of the Middle Township Taxpayers Association, said it is unfair to residents of the southern part of the township to dedicate part of the public land to the private organization. She said some consider it an issue of the wealthier Cape May Court House area of town taking advantage of the less fortunate Rio Grande area.
“Rio Grande was promised recreation there for all,” she wrote in an email. “My granddaughter plays on that soccer league, and I live in Court House, but what they want to do is not right.”
Cresse also raised issues with the township locking a gate to close off the parking lot. The township subsequently opened the gates.
The Wisting complex is the largest piece of open space the township owns. The township’s other recreational complexes — mainly the 65-acre Clarence and Georgiana Davies Sports Complex in Goshen and the 7-acre Martin Luther King Center in Whitesboro — are seriously overcrowded.
The township has undertaken a review of its recreational lands, and several groups have envisioned using the Wisting complex in some way. Swimmers picture a pool on the land, lacrosse players want to share the fields with soccer players and disc golf players want a course through the land.
With all of those competing interests, many locals want to make sure they will be able to use the land before the township signs an agreement with Cape Express. Granigan said his organization plans to maintain it for the benefit of all, which would also improve the quality of the other fields by giving the grass a rest.
“Immediately after baseball, it’s soccer; immediately after soccer, it’s football; immediately after football, it’s lacrosse,” he said. “This will, A, provide more space for people, and, B, give the fields rest.”
Mayor Dan Lockwood said only about five or six acres of the 82-acre parcel is available for improvements, while the rest would be used for passive recreation. He said he is looking forward to stocking the property’s pond with fish and seeing Cape Express install lighting at the facility.
He said he envisions the Wisting complex becoming a hub of recreational activity in the township, which he wants to see become a destination for recreation.
“You start to build this image where Middle is the place to bring a tournament,” he said.
Those ambitious visions have been put forward before, and nearby restaurant owner Jay Menz said he has seen what has come of them.
Menz’s family originally owned the land and sold it to another landowner before the township acquired it through condemnation. He said he watched preliminary work being done there, but he also has watched teenagers partying in the woods and people dumping garbage there.
He sees some people walking there for recreational purposes, but little else.
“They cut the grass once in a while,” the owner of Menz Restaurant said.
It’s a shame, he said, because the Davies complex in the northern part of the township is beautiful, while the residents in the southern end have an unsightly, unfulfilled promise.
“It was bought to be a recreation facility,” he said. “You’d think that’s what it should be.”
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