Cost-Cutting Suggestion: Meadowlands East

Paul Bass PhotosThe Jets and Giants share a home field in Jersey. Should Cross and Hillhouse do it in New Haven—and save taxpayers money?

Tireless citizen budget watchdog Ken Joyner popped that question at a City Hall hearing Thursday night.

Joyner suggested that the city have the football teams at New Haven’s two biggest high schools both use one field for the five home games each of their football teams play every year, “such as the Giants and Jets do in New Jersey” at the Meadowlands.

Melissa Bailey PhotoJoyner presented the idea as an alternative to the proposal at hand Thursday night: Approval of a plan to spend $11.6 million to redo crumbling Bowen Field, where the Hillhouse High School team plays.

The lawmakers holding the hearing—the Board of Aldermen’s joint Education and Finance Committee—unanimously voted to advance the proposal to the full board for approval anyway.

But the lawmakers didn’t vote to approve the idea. And they didn’t vote to reject it, either.

Melissa Bailey PhotoInstead, while they made clear that the Bowen Field renovations are headed for eventual approval, the lawmakers took up part of Joyner’s pitch. They agreed that the Board of Education officials who pitched the plan Thursday night hadn’t offered enough of a financial justification for approval. They voted that the Board of Ed must provide a breakdown of how all the money will be spent, as well as the price of not doing the project, before the Bowen redo can receive a final approval.

The aldermen have a hunch that it might actually cost the city more not to do the project, because of emergency safety repairs Bowen needs and the millions of pre-approved state dollars the city would lose if it doesn’t OK the deal, said board President Jorge Perez of the Hill.

But given tough financial times—a projected city deficit that could reach as high as $11 million and expected state and federal aid cutbacks—lawmakers have to justify every penny spent or borrowed, Perez and other aldermen argued, echoing citizen Joyner.

Melissa Bailey PhotoOn a broader level, several aldermen emphasized that the idea of replacing Bowen Field’s chopped-up field, potholed track, and crumbling bleachers enjoys broad public support. The state has already approved the $11.6 million as part of its school construction program. The state commits about $8 million for the project. Board of Ed and city finance officials Thursday night were seeking approval to file a formal application for the pre-approved state money and to have the city borrow the other $3.6 million. The plan includes replacing the grass field with artificial turf, expanding the track from six to eight lanes, bathrooms with disability access, building new aluminum bleachers and fences and lighting. Click here for a previous story with more details.

New Haven got lucky with this project, Robert Lynn of the Board of Ed’s school construction program told the aldermen Thursday night: The state doesn’t usually pre-approve this kind of grant. And it usually throws in 50 percent, not 69 percent, of athletic field makeovers. This project got the 69 percent because it qualified as a “school construction” project, said Lynn, who’s pictured at left the top of the story next to schools Chief Operating Officer Will Clark and school construction engineer Michael DePalma.

East Rock Alderman Justin Elicker asked Clark and Lynn how much it would cost to do a smaller repair job rather than the full project.

They didn’t have an estimate. Clark said that a “patch” job on the track would serve as only a “band-aid approach.” Some work has to be done to protect public safety, like replacing some bleachers and ruts in the field. Also, the city would lose state funding. So in the end it could end up doing much less work while spending more than the $3.6 million share it would encumber under the state plan, Clark argued.

“I agree. It would cost us more than the local share. But it’s a number we should have,” Perez said, referring to the request for hard numbers.

Elicker pressed for an estimate of maintenance costs long term for the new Bowen. Clark and Lynn didn’t have those either. But they noted that maintaining artificial turf costs practically nothing, while the grass field requires regular seeding and planting.

Like patriots pre-empting attacks on their loyalty, the aldermen kept couching their financial questions in a bed of overall support for the concept of fixing Bowen.

“The neighborhood has been wanting this to be done for many years and will support it,” said committee Chair Alfreda Edwards of Newhallville. “We do need to see some figures in front of us. I am in support of the project.”

“My community wants this and has embraced this. The field has not been done for 20 years,” added Beaver Hills Alderwoman Claudette Robinson-Thorpe.

Clark promised to present detailed breakdowns of each part of the $11.6 million plan as well as the alternative scenario in time for a full Board of Aldermen vote.

“This should not be a major project for you to do,” Perez cautioned him. In other words: Don’t hire expensive consultants. You have the numbers already and working drafts about cost breakdowns. Crunch the numbers and update the plans.

“And please don’t give it to us the same day” as a vote.

Citizen Joyner, a regular fixture at city budget hearings and close reader of city budgets, floated his Meadowlands-style idea when the floor was opened for public comment.

“Everybody likes things” like rebuilt fields, said Joyner, who lives in Newhallville. “The question arises: Can we afford all of our things?

“Don’t always jump at the fact that the city is willing to put up 69 percent of the money.”

Social studies teacher Darryl Brackeen Jr. (pictured) of Westville, a Hillhouse alum, spoke after Joyner. He supported the project. He suggested creating a revenue stream from events at Bowen to cover future maintenance costs.

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posted by: streever on December 7, 2012  4:23pm

That is how a meeting should go! Well done. I appreciate the requests for real data and information.

posted by: PH on December 7, 2012  4:50pm

I can’t believe that bleachers can’t be torn down and replaced for less than $11 million.  And I am always sad to hear of plans where a grass field will be replaced by artificial turf in a climate as hospitable as ours to growing grass.  Why would we choose to spend money to play sports on plastic when there is good ol’ grass already there?  What a waste.

posted by: SaveOurCity on December 7, 2012  5:13pm

PH - yes $11.6 million for a simple project is an outrageous number to you and me.  However, Johnny D has an election coming up in 11 months and he needs a few plum projects to make sure that he gets campaign money….it may require a lot of smearing to fool the residents of the city into another re-election

posted by: Ken Joyner on December 7, 2012  6:30pm

For the record,
I testified that as a former graduate of Hill house High School I can see that the field and surroundings conditions had not appreciably changed. I supported the proposal, while offering the BOE and finance committee give consideration to combining football and other athletic events at one field, to be called New Haven stadium, rather than attempt to recondition both Hill house and Cross fields as first proposed by the BOE in May 2012.

When you consider that both schools only play ten football games a season, five at home, five away, it would be more cost effective to combine the use into one stadium, as is the case in the Meadow lands New Jersey.

The possible benefits to be realized would be the reduction in long term 20 year bonding, the most costly, in order to maintain one field. In addition, there exist the opportunity to incorporate and convert the stadium field between football season for the use by boys and girls for soccer and lacrosse games.
Additionally, Achievement first, if located in Dixwell/Newhallville, could conceivably use the stadium for its extracurricular sports activities. A benefit of three high schools in one.
Both Hill house and Cross are in need of new track and stadium lighting estimated to cost $900,000, we currently have a indoor track at Hill house Floyd Little field house that is severely underutilized, similar to the Tennis court a Yale, built by the state and funded by the city. Two additional long term cost drivers for a city who has long since maxed out its credit card.
What I am essentially suggesting is that the city become a more proactive cost efficient manager of long term proposals spending city taxpayers money because a beleaguered and cash strapped state of CT. can makes one last foray into its depleted bond fund.

posted by: Noteworthy on December 7, 2012  6:55pm

By all means, when the city is running a deficit of some $11 million, borrow more money and escalate the debt service. The community supports this expenditure? No kidding. They won’t be paying for much of it. Just for perspective, the cost of this play field is more than 20% of the total cost of a new NH BOE $50 million school; or a third the cost of an Achievement First school at $35 million. Put it on the list to do when we have the money or piece it together over time. Will the smart, forward thinking people win out? No. It will be rubberstamped as usual.

posted by: HhE on December 7, 2012  9:09pm

I opine that Mr. Joyner makes a very good case.

posted by: vc man on December 8, 2012  6:48pm

Ken Joyner for mayor!!

posted by: anonymous on December 8, 2012  8:07pm

Our Board of Aldermen Leader has $3,600,000 million for a field that primarily benefits the middle class (and politically-connected construction companies), but recently voted down $30,000 to match millions in Federal and State grants that could improve our bus and transit system, particularly for disabled, elderly, unemployed, and low-income residents? These certainly aren’t the priorities of a leader who is willing to stand up for the needs of people of limited means.

posted by: Really Guys on December 8, 2012  9:05pm

correct me if i,m wrong, but what about Hyde Leadership school, don’t they play football games at Bowen, so we talking about 3 teams playing on the new field, That field will get worn down quickly. by the way, what about the 300+ kids that practice over their for the pop warner program, oh i guess the kids don’t matter. Stop thinking about yourselves and think about who and why this project is being done. WHAT IS THE BEST SOLUTION FOR THE KIDS, have we bothered to take a poll or conduct a research survey about how the kids feel, I BET IT WASN’T DONE AND NEVER CONSIDERED.

posted by: erock on December 8, 2012  11:23pm

I don’t think having both schools play on one field is really the answer because then the field where one school practiced would be subpar, it seems. However, $11.6 seems a little steep. My first thought would be to lose the turf. Turf has negative environmental consequences, and it does not cost nothing to maintain. It has to be regularly watered so it doesn’t cause friction burns and it must be replaced about every 10 years—then where does it end up? A landfill.

I hope the aldermen are given the information and take the time to examine how the contracts are awarded for the renovations.

posted by: 1483mmm on December 9, 2012  9:27pm

Thank you Really Guys…Hyde Leadership School also uses Bowen Field for its football varsity and JV teams when available.  This year the school has been using Wilbur Cross Complex.

I like the suggestion of developing a “revenue stream”, however, it is important to note that the City does charge a reasonable admission fee for high school football events (at the last event I attended at Cross, I was charged $5 for anyone age 13 and over).  This is reasonable and I think anything more becomes cost prohibitive to those families who want to support and attend their child’s games (especially for those of us with multiple childrent).  I have been told that those funds don’t go directly to the schools but to the City to cover security and other direct expenses in support of that particular game.  I would curious to see if any feasibility report was done to explore the possibility of generating enough money annually from events to cover maintenance.  I don’t personally think there is enough activity from non-City departments and school groups to generate enough revenue needed to cover maintenance costs, but maybe a study can prove otherwise.

Multiple schools using one field - if the dates align and everyone can “play nice in the sandbox”, then this is something to consider.  Given the number of teams, I don’t think one field could service everyone.

Although turf is easier to maintain, there are downsides to using turf that folks should be aware of (serious health and environmental issues):

I wonder if the health hazards of turf were part of the BOA discussion with the School District.  It should be.  I say stay with a grass field.

I am mixed about this project.  As much as Bowen needs renovation, our City is running a deficit and it seems as if the state deficit increases everyday.  I am struggling with increased gas, groceries, and other daily living expenses just like everyone else.

Where is this money coming from?

posted by: Anstress Farwell on December 11, 2012  5:49pm

I share the concerns raised by “1483mmm” on the human health and environmental impacts of artificial turf. The plastic “grass” is embedded in a loose matrix of crumbled rubber tires. The crumbs contain toxic materials, such as lead, which can get on the athletes’ skin, and in their nose and mouth during play. Artificial turf fields have been reservoirs of infectious agents such as Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). Artificial turf fields are associated with higher injury rates for players. Artificial turf fields get to hot to use on many summer days, and do not provide the cooling effect of an overall area created by natural grass.

The life-cycle costs of artificial turf are also high—in addition to the engineering and construction of the fields, there is the cost of disposing of the plastic and rubber at the end of the field’s use.

Here is a report:
Artificial Turf: Exposures to Ground Up Rubber Tires

And a recent NPR story:

Artificial turf spreads, but recycled rubber raises concerns

posted by: Stephen Wilcox on December 11, 2012  10:15pm

The real question is how Oxford, 20 miles down the road, can build a brand new artificial turf football field and track with bleachers and lights for 3.1 million and New Haven is going to pay 11.6 million. Oxford’s field is being built from scratch and required the land to be graded which necessitated truckloads of dirt to be brought in and rock blasting. Bowen Field is already a football field and requires no such work. Below is the link to the article.