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Another private idea goes the bond route

The debate about whether the football field and the adjoining quad area at Westerly High School should be converted to turf from natural grass seems to be on a fast track, having gone before the school committee just recently before moving to the Town Council for consideration as a bond referendum item in April.

And it reminds us of another issue from a few years ago that went from a special interest group effort — complete with plans and promised donations from supporters — to townwide bond referendum. That issue was the plan to bury utilities in the Watch Hill section of town. The Watch Hill Fire District, the Watch Hill Conservancy and private donors were going to pay for that project at the outset. We wrote about the plan and the pledges for all to see. Time passed, the economy worsened, and suddenly that same plan resurfaced, but as a project of the town to be funded by a bond. After some push-back, the project was pulled.

The turf idea surfaced in 2011 as the idea of a group dedicated to raising “$900,000 to replace the high school football field’s natural grass with artificial turf,” to quote from our own story, published Oct. 9, 2011. Board member Jim Murano, who also was serving on the board at the time, brought the idea to his colleagues, speaking as a private citizen and a member of the group that initiated the plan. As presented, no taxpayer money would be used. Rather, the plan — a challenging undertaking with an aggressive goal — called for the group to lead a fundraising campaign over three years in hopes of generating the money from the private sector. The group, the Westerly Gridiron Association, went so far as to say the intent was not to ask for any money from the school or town budget.

As envisioned, this would be a worthy project and one to be celebrated. We imagine the Lions and Rotary and Elks and others getting behind the project, with everything from pasta suppers to special events.

But now, after a period of quiet on this issue, the turf field, with the addition of the quad, has come back center stage as a $2 million project requiring a 20-year bond — and with a bit of a crisis atmosphere attached: the field is in horrible shape; it gets so much use there’s never enough time for it to fully rejuvenate; maintenance is expensive; and a turf field will save the town $65,000 annually while freeing up 830 maintenance staff hours, according to athletic director Jamey Vetelino.

Some residents are concerned that the field project could take money away from badly needed repairs at the elementary schools. Just this week we ran a story about the decades-old problem of heating problems at State Street Elementary, and parents angry at temperatures that require coats and hats and at times relocating students to non-classroom areas for instruction when their classrooms are unbearably cold.

Stonington installed a turf field last summer. We suggest that Westerly leaders wait until their neighboring district goes through a full year with the field, maybe even two years, and then ask their neighbors to share hard numbers, and anecdotal information about how it’s going and how the expenses break down.

Student athletes have played muddy football and soccer games for decades. Switching from dirt and grass to a turf field just doesn’t seem like a crisis situation, especially when our elementary schools are in such tough shape. The Westerly Gridiron Association still wants to have a role in funding a turf field. We hope the group remains active and continues to pursue this project, which could be a great rallying point for the community.

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