Op-Ed: Barrington – A sports town with a generation of failure

A commentary on how Barrington forgot its identity and neglected a generation of sports-loving youth

By Scott Pickering
Posted 3/5/24

I believe that Barrington’s failure to develop good, or even adequate, outdoor sports fields for an entire generation of youth is one of the most surprising failures you will ever see by a …

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Op-Ed: Barrington – A sports town with a generation of failure

A commentary on how Barrington forgot its identity and neglected a generation of sports-loving youth


The following was written to and submitted to the Barrington Town Council as it contemplates making sports field improvements in town.

I believe that Barrington’s failure to develop good, or even adequate, outdoor sports fields for an entire generation of youth is one of the most surprising failures you will ever see by a small community.

Of course I don’t say this lightly, and I do not say it because I believe sports is the most important aspect of a community. I say it because Barrington’s neglect of its sports facilities is the biggest misalignment between a community’s identity and its actions in my lifetime. In my professional life, I have been a close observer of nine different East Bay communities for the past 30 years. I’ve never seen anything like this.

First, you have to understand who we are. We are the community with the densest concentration of children in the entire state of Rhode Island. There are more children, per capita, living in Barrington than in any of the other 38 cities or towns in this state. Nearly 22% of our population is comprised of school-age children. East Greenwich is right behind us, at 20%, and then every other municipality in Rhode Island is 15% or lower. Therefore we have, percentage-wise, more children living here than anywhere else in Rhode Island. Please keep that in mind, because you have to know who you are, and who you represent, when you make decision as leaders.

Secondly, we have extremely high levels of participation in youth sports. Here’s a good way to think about this. Picture a pyramid, with a wide base that narrows at the top. This is what we would typically expect to see for children participating in sports in any community. When children are young, many try youth soccer, or Little League softball, or lacrosse or flag football. Raise your hand if you signed up your children for some recreational outdoor sports league when they were young. I’m confident that 80% to 90% of hands in Barrington would go up.

Your hired consultant, Traverse Landscape Architects, submitted a great report with outstanding analysis, but there is one area where I think he got it wrong. He said only 30% of the town’s youth participate in sports. That is not correct. I checked with each of the four major OUTDOOR youth sports leagues – soccer, lacrosse, football and baseball/softball. In 2023, they had nearly 1,600 youth play in their leagues. I arrived at this conclusion by taking their 2023 enrollment numbers and applying some logic. First, you should know that I did not count children twice in the same sport — meaning, if they played soccer in the fall and soccer in the spring, they were only counted once. I also eliminated some of the numbers to account for some kids who might play two sports, like soccer in the fall and baseball in the spring. Even when making those adjustments, we still had an estimated 1,580 children play OUTDOOR sports last calendar year. That does not even include the kids who played basketball, or took part in gymnastics, swimming or other sports. Those kids make our pyramid base eve wider.

Looking only at the children who played OUTDOOR youth sports (that’s Grades K to 8) last year, an incredible 66% of the town’s children took part in an outdoor sports league. That’s two-thirds of the children living in this town. So don’t listen to the person who tells you that “the sports group” is a minority of this town. It is not. It is an overwhelming majority of this community — the community you have been elected to represent.

Now let’s look at the high school. Your own high school athletic director shared the numbers regarding sports participation at BHS. If you take his high number from last year, which was 437 Barrington High School students playing a sport in the spring of 2023, and then, recognizing there are two- and three-sport athletes, if you count only a third of the athletes from the fall, and a third of the athletes from the winter, you still come out with an estimate of 688 Barrington High School students playing sports in 2023. That represents 62% of the entire high school population. Sixty-two percent of the kids who walked through the doors of Barrington High School last year were a member of a sports program. So now think back to the pyramid, where we know sports participation decreases as children get older. At the very top of Barrington’s pyramid, you still have 62% of the teenagers participating in at least one sports team.

This is your community. These are the people living. They represent an overwhelming majority of the people who buy houses here, pay property taxes here, and elect leaders to represent them here in government. This is Barrington. It is, in fact, a sports town.



I don’t need to spend much time documenting the shortcomings of every sports facility in Barrington. Everyone else already has. Traverse gave the town’s multipurpose fields abysmal grades and said Barrington would need to add 5 MORE fields to properly supports its needs. Every sports league president has talked about the shortage of adequate fields, and the poor quality of those fields. The school athletic director has talked about the shortage of fields and the inability to properly rest them. Thousands of parents have complained about the poor facilities, the lousy parking, the bumpy, unsafe surfaces. The town’s premiere field — the one we use when welcoming the rest of Rhode Island to our wonderful town — received a pathetic D grade in the Traverse report. Last year, the town itself did a poll that attracted more than 1,400 responses, and the results were unequivocal – the fields are lousy, unsafe, and yes, embarrassing.

Those are all facts. Now here are my two cents. This problem is yours to fix, but it is not your fault. The path that led us here stretches back decades. It goes back to the 1980s, when I was playing youth soccer here in town, and every Saturday was spent at St. Andrew’s School. Back then, like now, the town had no sports complex. But it had St. Andrew’s. The mysterious, little private school with the massive campus openly shared its fields along Federal Road with the town’s soccer league. Between the Middle School and St. Andrew’s, we had plenty of space for all teams, all practices, all games.

And that worked great – until it didn’t. At some point, St. Andrew’s pulled back and stopped opening its fields. Barrington’s lack of planning was suddenly, painfully clear. Its population was growing, its youth population was growing, and sports participation was growing. Soccer grew bigger. Lacrosse came on the scene. And Barrington had an enormous demand for services, and no way to provide those services.

Look at what this community has devoted to sports and recreation, in terms of planning, space and investments, in the past two generations. It is underwhelming. We have Chianese Park. It is a former landfill. It was never designed, planned or intended to be a sports complex. But it is today, because there is nothing else. We have the St. Andrew’s Farm Field. The newest and “best” field in town (it got a C in the Traverse report), this was not the result of long-range planning by Barrington. It was a gift from the private school that consumes the north end of town. We have “neighborhood” fields, like Bicknell. They’re great, and they are wonderful additions to those neighborhoods. But they were never intended as community-wide resources. Have you ever seen Bicknell on a game day, when cars from throughout town, and from out of town — which can include the opposing team, grandparents, referees, coaches — crowd the streets, block driveways and create a general nuisance?

Then there are the school facilities. Every one of them has field space, but not one of them was planned with adequate space for long-range growth, to the point that the school district faces enormous challenges trying to figure out how to expand those buildings to meet their needs today, with fields being an afterthought. Expect that in the next five years, every school building will expand to consume more space, and the existing field spaces will shrink.

Finally, we have Haines State Park, where the town has taken a piecemeal approach of occasionally carving out a small footprint for a ball field, but seemingly without purpose or a long-range plan. And now it supposedly has a plan to spend an obscene amount of money to create one, single field that will help, a little, but really not that much.

Overall, we have had four decades of poor, inadequate, short-term, or no-term planning, to get to where we are today — bursting with a vibrant, active, youth and sports-centric community, with the worst collection of fields in the entire state. This is not fact; this is my strong opinion. However, my opinion is based on 40 years of traveling this state, as a youth player, an adult player, and a parent of five active children, to every community in Rhode Island. I have played on, coached on, or been a spectator on, nearly every sports field or complex in this state, and every community I have visited has a better collection of fields than Barrington. Every one of them. They have better playing surfaces, better parking, better facilities — and more of them.

Coventry has a gorgeous field complex in the woods. Central Fields has a spectacular multi-purpose field a block from the prison. Pawtucket has a huge sports complex in the middle of an industrial zone. Warwick has multiple enormous parks with dozens of fields and huge parking areas. Portsmouth has a former farm converted into a vast sports complex. Bristol has an adorable complex of fields, playground, pavilion and beach near the water. They ALL have better facilities than Barrington. With fewer children and less affluence, every community has, at some point in its recent history, set aside space, developed a plan, and built a sports complex better than any in the history of Barrington. Only Barrington grew with a two-track development plan — schools and houses — with almost nothing to support the enormous population that would inhabit those schools and houses.



Now what? Despite all I’ve articulated here, I don’t know everything, and I don’t have all the answers. Smarter people than I can see creative solutions to the problem. But first you have to acknowledge there is a problem. Hopefully you all will. As I said at the beginning, this is the greatest misalignment of a community’s identity with a community’s actions that I have ever witnessed. We have not built the infrastructure to meet our community’s needs.

To that end, there has been a lot of talk, for at least a decade, about artificial turf. One of you has stated, I believe multiple times, that she will never support an artificial turf plan in Barrington. Let me address this closed-minded view in two ways. First, it reeks of a common theme in Barrington, a community which sometimes acts like it is smarter than everyone else. I’ve seen this in school leadership, town government and community decisions, where we decide to do our own thing and proudly act like we know better than every other community. We did this with start times for our schools, our school calendar, our plastic bans, our sign ordinance, our zoning code.

There are times when we are the vanguard of change — like when dozens of communities followed our bag ban to implement their owns — and there are times when we’re just arrogant — like when none of our sports teams can arrive at an away game on time because our kids get out of school an hour later than everyone else, or when we got slapped on the wrist because the state discovered that our seniors weren’t going to school enough days to qualify for graduation; or when we drive a successful business out of town because we don’t like their blue cow, and they move next door and thrive for another 20 years. This “I’ll never support turf” attitude reeks of that same arrogance, as if we know better than everyone else. I have not surveyed this to give you exact figures, but I’m confident in saying that nearly every other community in the Northeast has installed artificial turf in the past 20 years. Every private high school in Rhode Island has artificial turf. Most public high schools have artificial turf. Every college or university in the Northeast has artificial turf. And the few who don’t, like the town of Bristol, have plans to install it within the next two years. So who’s smarter? The vast, overwhelming number of communities who found a solution to their problems, or the one community that refuses to?

The second misunderstanding in the “I’ll never support turf” viewpoint is the suggestion that there are people who simply love artificial turf. I contend there is no one who loves turf for turf’s sake. No one wakes up in the morning and thinks, “I love Barrington, I love my water views, I love my schools, I just wish we had some artificial turf!” The people who want turf, want it because it is an effective solution to the problems we outlined before. Artificial turf can adapt to all sports, it does not need to rest for months at a time, and it can survive through all kinds of weather. You can play on it during or after a rainstorm. You can play on it 12 to 16 hours per day without wearing it out. You can start using it earlier in the spring and keep using it later in the fall. It is versatile, durable and weather-proof. It solves your problems, and that’s why people want turf — not because they love turf, but because they love playing sports.

With turf in town, your high school teams can stop fund-raising to rent their own practice time on turf fields in other towns. I don’t know if you are all aware of this, but the boys and girls lacrosse teams, and the field hockey team, conduct fundraising drives every year. They ask for donations, they sell popcorn and cookie dough and sweatshirts and T-shirts — hitting up their parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and neighbors, to give them money so their coaches can rent artificial turf fields in Seekonk and Rehoboth and Tiverton and Providence. Why? So they can compete on a level playing field – literally. Each of those teams plays every one of its home games on grass and every one of its away games on artificial turf. When the opposing teams come to Barrington, they get frustrated at the fields and laugh at Barrington. When Barrington players and parents go to other fields, they mutter about how every other school has better fields and facilities than their hometown. I’m not making this up. I’ve lived it for the past five years. We’re not smarter than everyone else. We’re slower.



I’ve finally come to the end, but let me first review. We live in the community with the densest concentration of children in all of Rhode Island. We have a sports-centric population, where nearly 70% of the town’s youth played an outdoor sport last year, and more than 60% of high schools student participated in a sport last year. To serve that enormous sports population, we have, in my opinion, the most underwhelming, inadequate and embarrassing collection of sports facilities in the entire state.

What will you do about it? My top suggestion has always been to develop the north half of Haines Park as a smartly designed sports complex, leaving the southern half for trails and preservation. A tiny minority of neighbors and environmentalists will complain, but so be it. You would be serving the community’s greater good. You could also acknowledge that Chianese Park actually IS a sports complex, and treat it as such. Install turf, create a sensible parking area, and overcome the tiny minority of people who will complain. None of their property values will be harmed, and you would once again be serving the community’s greater good. Or you could commit yourselves to any other sensible plan that solves the problem.

The one thing you can’t do is nothing. Nothing has been done for 40 years. Nothing has created the situation today, with a bustling, active, youthful community that is woefully lacking the facilities to meet its needs.

You must do something. The thousands of people who live here, raise their children here, pay their taxes here and invest in this community, deserve better than this. Barrington is failing them, and it has been for at least a generation.

Scott Pickering is a Barrington resident and General Manager of East Bay Media Group, publisher of eastbayri.com.

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