These volunteers in Hull won’t take no for an answer
HULL — Teams playing on the athletic field at Hull High School look up to see a stunning view of Boston Harbor, across Peddocks Island all the way to the city skyline.
Looking down is a less inspiring vision: The grass is thin and weedy, scraped down to hard dirt in places, the surface uneven and pocked with mini craters.
“It’s a mess,” said Jennifer Olivieri, president of the Hull Boosters. “It’s a beautiful location, but the field is completely embarrassing.”
Hull voted down a Proposition 2 ½ tax-limit override that would have covered the cost of replacing the old field with a new $1.8 million artificial turf one. So the Boosters are stepping in -- vowing to raise the money privately.
Hull is not a wealthy town, but the Boosters have come up with big money in the past -- contributing more than $250,000 in the past seven years to help keep high school athletics afloat, according to the school’s athletic director, Jim Quatromoni.
And while Olivieri admits that the latest challenge is daunting, she said there really isn’t an alternative. “We decided we weren’t giving up,” she said.
“If anyone can do it, it’s them,” Quatromoni said. “This is a group of very passionate individuals who are driven by the desire that our students have the same opportunities that kids in our surrounding communities have. And we are landlocked by some rather wealthy communities.”
Those wealthy communities -- including Hingham, Cohasset, and Norwell -- also have tapped into private resources to help build public turf playing fields.
It’s an approach seen all across the state, says John Perry of Gale Associates engineering firm in Weymouth, which has designed more than 200 turf field projects, including the one proposed for Hull, and written about innovative ways to finance them.
The advice is often warranted since turf fields are pricey -- more than double the cost of natural grass ones. Perry said a typical grass soccer/football field costs about $400,000; the same size field costs about $900,000 for synthetic turf, he said.
“But when you look at it over the life of the field, they are about even,” he said, since artificial turf fields last longer and require minimal maintenance. Artificial turf also can be used immediately and far more often, so “when you look at a per use cost, the synthetic field wins by a factor of two or three,” he added.
Still the sticker shock can be off-putting, especially to communities with other expensive capital needs, Perry said, so kicking in private money is often key to a successful campaign. “It goes a long way toward making [the cost] palatable,” he said.
Some communities -- including Norwell and Wellesley -- also turn to Community Preservation Act funds, which come from a combination of a local property tax surcharges and a share of state money that can be used for open space, historic preservation, affordable housing, and recreation.
The state Community Preservation Act specifically prohibits using the money to buy synthetic turf, Perry said. But he said the money can be used to pay for everything else that goes into building an artificial turf field, such as the materials and labor for the field’s base and drainage system -- about half the total cost.
Some communities have had an easier time convincing taxpayers to pony up for playing fields.
Since 2007, Dedham voters have twice approved property tax increases to pay for artificial turf fields – at Dedham High School and at the Dolan Recreation Center. And in May, Town Meeting voted to spend $2.4 million of town money for a third artificial turf field for the recreation department.
“We’ve been very lucky here in Dedham,” said the town’s parks and recreation director, Bob Stanley. “The people have chosen to invest in these things.”
He added that he loves the turf fields, which require little maintenance and are always available.
“It can pour all day, stop at 3:15, and you can be on the field at 3:30, while all our other fields would be shut down for usually 24 hours. You really get a lot more with the artificial turf field,” he said.
Stanley said there was opposition to the fields from people with health concerns about the crumb rubber -- from recycled tires -- used in making the artificial turf.
“A number of residents worried that [the fields] might cause cancer,” Stanley said. “We went down every road to investigate, and there’s been nothing to prove that.”
The issue has come up in other communities across the nation, where the Atlanta-based Synthetic Turf Council estimates there are currently between 12,000 and 13,000 synthetic turf sports fields -- with approximately 1,200 to 1,500 new installations annually.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency has said that existing studies have not shown an elevated health risk from the fields, but decided to work with other federal heath and safety agencies on a comprehensive evaluation of the issue. A report is expected by late 2016.
In Rockland, opposition to a proposed $3.9 million artificial turf sports complex came from an unusual quarter: veterans who were offended by the location. The stadium field and track, which was rejected by voters in June 2016 would have displaced a Little League field named for a Vietnam War veteran and a grove of trees honoring World War II veterans.
Rockland High School’s athletic director, Gary Graziano, said supporters will try again in November and work harder to convince voters that the facility is needed.
“We rushed onto [the June] ballot, and it was combined with a $6.5 million road project [which passed] -- so we were up against it,” Graziano said.
In Hull, Olivieri and the Boosters are relying heavily on social media -- with a YouTube video and Facebook page Field4Hull -- to make the case for a turf field and track at the high school to replace the worn grass field that was last upgraded 10 years ago. The field -- the only one in town -- is used about 500 times a year by school and youth sports -- except for youth soccer, which pays to play in Cohasset.
The Boosters point out that engineers say the existing field should be used a maximum of 300 times a year -- which would require cutting teams or eliminating youth teams. By contrast, an artificial turf field could accommodate 800 uses.
As of June 23, the group had raised $20,789 and was beginning to apply for grants. The Boosters also issued a challenge to Hull High School alumni to see which class could raise the most money.
But for a blue-collar town with a population of about 10,300 -- and a high school with about 325 students -- coming up with $1.8 million is a huge challenge, Olivieri acknowledged.
“It’s a big amount to raise,” she said. “But, hey, when you say 18,000 people giving $100 each, it doesn’t sound like so much.”