Secret million

By on November 26, 2013

Anonymous donor pledges $1 million for synthetic turf at War Memorial

A secret donor has pledged $1 million toward the installation of artificial turf on the baseball and football field at War Memorial Field. (Photo by Preston Whitcraft)

A secret donor has pledged $1 million toward the installation of artificial turf on the baseball and football field at War Memorial Field. (Photo by Preston Whitcraft)

Ephrata School District has a million reasons to install synthetic turf at War Memorial Field.

Superintendent Brian Troop confirmed Friday that an anonymous donor “is willing to pledge $1 million toward a possible turf project at the War Memorial Field.”

The prospect of installing aesthetically-pleasing synthetic turf may excite many, including Troop and Neal Mease, a member of the War Memorial Association, which holds a 99-year agreement leasing the field to the district.

But Mease, an Ephrata football booster and administrator of the “Ephrata Mounts Football” on Facebook, noted the artificial turf plan would stir opposition if tax dollars go to finance a portion of the project.

WMA officials have estimated the project could total as much as $3 million, but district officials suggest that is a high estimate.

“I ask that you all get behind this project, because we all know there will be a very vocal opposition to spending additional school district money for athletic field upgrades,” Mease wrote.

The proposed artificial turf would cover both the football and baseball fields at War Memorial &tstr; something that would be unique in the county, Troop said.

“It would be similar to the field at Red Lion (high school), Troop said., where bleacher seats can be extended onto the field without damaging the artificial turf.

The installation of synthetic turf could profoundly impact the relationship between the War Memorial Association and the district, said Andrew Dittrick, WMA president.

The district pays an annual $40,000 stipend to the War Memorial Association, which maintains the snack bar, fencing, lights and field – including grass mowing, irrigation, turf up-keep, and line painting – using its own equipment.

It budget pays for fuel costs and other bills such as electricity costs to light the field.

Dittrick said his uneasiness about the proposed artificial turf is shared by many on the committee.

“My phone has been buzzing,” Dittrick said. “I’d just like to know more about this anonymous donor and the $1 million. Is it in an escrow account? Is it guaranteed?”

He and other WMA officials met with Troop and athletic director Steven Sweigert on Nov. 4 where Dittrick submitted a $68,800 proposal from Hummer Turfgrass Systems, Inc. to re-sod the field.

The district that day scheduled another meeting for Nov. 13 after Dittrick suggested that each group would pay about $34,400 for the new sod, he said.

“That’s when we heard about the synthetic turf,” Dittrick said.

Dittrick echoed Mease’s suggestion of a backlash if taxpayer money is used to pay for the field.

But Mease on Tuesday noted there are “a lot of opportunities for fundraising these days,” and the district must “get creative to get funds because Ephrata lacks the business and industry that other area school district’s enjoy.”

“I’d like to see donations go for more facility upgrades including more at the middle school,” Mease said.

The district in 2011 completed a $1 million-plus project to install synthetic turf the new Mountaineer Field, located along Hammon Avenue at Ephrata Middle School.

Still, WMA members were miffed when the turf issue mysteriously vanished from the Monday Nov. 18 school board meeting agenda sometime during the previous weekend, Dittrick said.

“I’m a straight forward kind of guy, I don’t get the need for secrecy,” Dittrick said.

Ephrata School Board President Tim Stayer confirmed after the Nov. 18 meeting that the board is exploring the feasibility of replacing the beat-up surface with artificial turf.

Troop, who issued a Nov. 22 press release announcing the proposed project, said the board had sought to respect the donor’s wish to remain anonymous.

“We have been presented with a wonderful opportunity and would be negligent to ignore the generosity of the donor and not fully explore a turf project,” Troop said.

Troop said the district is waiting on estimates on the cost of a synthetic turf field, which would require school board approval.

He said “the district values our relationship with the War Memorial Association. We hope to continue conversations and exploring ways of working together…”

Troop urged community members to pledge financial support toward a potential turf field by calling the district business office.

Dittrick has invited Troop and Stayer to provide more details about synthetic turf at WMA’s Dec. 5 meeting.

He said there’s a chance that the district could halve WMA’s annual stipend to $20,000, which could jeopardize the organization’s future.

The district could cut about $300,000 over a 15-year warranty period on a synthetic turf field if the district’s contribution were cut in half, Dittrick said.

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