In 2005, the Acton-Boxborough Regional High School’s grass football field was replaced with turf. Leary Field had only been played on for 51 days in the year prior to the upgrade.
Once the installation was complete, the new multi-sport field was in use for 80 straight days.
The group behind the effort, Friends of Leary Field, had accomplished their goal. With Bill Mullen at the helm, they brought several different organizations together and pieced together a successful plan to finance the Leary Field project.
Since then, Leary has become Acton’s flagship field. High school football, soccer and lacrosse teams utilize it during their seasons. Youth programs such as Acton-Boxborough Youth Soccer (ABYS) do as well.
But the shortage of field space for our town’s athletes continues to plague those in leadership positions.
“We don’t have enough fields to fully support everything we do,” said ABRHS athletic director, Steve Desy. “They’re usable; they’re playable. But we really grind them down. Inclement weather means the fields are muddy and the footing is uneven.”
As far as following recommended procedures for grass fields, it doesn’t happen.
“We can never rest fields,” said Desy.
Dave Wilson, a former ABYS president and now the “town/school liaison” board member, knows all about field shortages and overuse. The largest youth organization in Acton-Boxborough, ABYS has more than 1,700 registered players. “ABYS has been trying to solve the field problem for a long time, without luck,” Wilson said.
Eighteen months ago, Desy helped turn what he said was “a conversation in a parking lot” into an initiative that, if successful, would add fields to the school complex.
Friends of the Lower Fields, chaired by Wilson, have been working on a plan to replace two of three existing grass fields with turf. The third field, which is undersized and currently used only for field events, would be upgraded. Due to their proximity to the T.J. O’Grady Skate Park, the skate park would be reconfigured and expanded.
The proposed turf fields would be larger than the grass fields they would supplant, making each the equivalent of four grass fields.
High school teams would retain priority over the fields; no outside groups would be permitted to use them from 7:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m. on school days. ABYS, Acton-Boxborough Youth Lacrosse and Pop Warner programs would have access to the fields in the evenings and on weekends.
Because turf fields can be played on in less-than-ideal weather, Wilson estimates that the new fields will afford more than 5,000 hours of community availability vs. the current 660 hours. “That doesn’t count the school use,” said Wilson. “That’s really exciting.”
The project’s design, created by Gale and Associates, includes lights for the fields, parking, a snack bar, bathrooms, and improvements to the skate park including a new beginner bowl and fencing.
Acton Recreation Department director Cathy Fochtman said that she welcomes the improvements that Friends of the Lower Fields are envisioning. “Any time I pass by, it’s in use,” she said of the skate park. The initiative’s success, she said, “involves a lot of different agencies coming together.”
The Recreation Department has pledged to help finance the skate park improvements and to partner with Friends of the Lower Fields to commission the engineered plans for the skatebowl.
The regional school committee and the leadership of ABYS have committed funds toward the project’s pre-design phase. Local lacrosse and Pop Warner football officials are expected to vote to contribute as well.
The undertaking is expected to cost approximately $3 million.
Friends of the Lower Fields have submitted a $980,000 request to the Community Preservation Committee. The amount they hope to acquire from CPA funds is roughly equivalent to the sum the CPC doles out in a single year. However, Wilson said, “We’re suggesting they bond it. We’d be asking for $200,000 a year for five years.”
The CPA funds would pay for the lighting system, parking lot, and skate park bowl construction at the new field complex.
The Friends of the Lower Fields, in partnership with ABYS, are prepared to take out a loan for up to $1.7 million. Anticipating a ten-year term, the group plans to repay the bank by renting out the new fields to club teams.
Wilson said that “these outside groups have a huge need for field space” and that “representatives of two soccer teams and one field hockey team have indicated that they’d be willing to commit to renting field space for $100 per hour in exchange for multi-year leases.”
In addition, the Friends would solicit contributions from those wishing to become the venture’s benefactors. “It’ll be easier to get those donations once the project is approved,” said Wilson.
Once the loan is repaid, the Friends of the Lower Fields would turn the management of the field complex over to the town. “Community Ed and the youth organizations will all have guaranteed time,” said Wilson. “We’d effectively be turning over a $3 million asset to the school system and the town.”
Wilson, whose group will be presenting to the CPC on January 26, 2012, is optimistic that their request will be approved. Referencing the 2012 Community Preservation Plan, which states that “Acton still has a considerable shortage of active recreation to meet the needs of its citizens,” he said, “I’m hoping they’ll see the benefits. It’s a good, smart, growth project. It’s good for open space.”
Should the CPC grant the petition, Friends of the Lower Fields will need a 2/3 vote at April’s Town Meeting. Then Boxborough officials would need to approve their school budget; they will likely meet in May.
“There are a lot of hurdles that need to be cleared,” said Desy. “But Dave’s group, the Friends of the Lower Fields, have really done a tremendous job.”
Construction could begin this spring, said Wilson, as soon as “the day after the high school teams are done playing” and be completed by August.