MANCHESTER — The town is closing in on a fundraising goal sufficient to allow construction of two new athletic fields at the Dana Thompson Rec Park, part of a wider-ranging reconfiguration of the recreation area.
As of the start of this week, only a few thousand dollars are left to find before an initial fundraising threshold of $300,000 is crossed, which would clear the way for preliminary construction to start as scheduled in early June, said Town Manager John O'Keefe.
During March Town Meeting, residents approved a measure which called for $75,000 in town revenues to be used towards the project. When added to $75,000 put in by Burr and Burton Academy and $125,000 by Derry Taylor, a local philanthropist who also donated money towards the construction of Burr and Burton's new turf field which opened last fall, that leaves the town $125,000 shy of the total projected cost of $400,000. If fundraising reaches that level, the project could be completed with electronic scoreboards, benches and other amenities, he said.
Once $350,000 is obtained through fundraising, sod could be installed and the fields ready for use in the fall of 2016, he said.
But the town only needs about $300,000 on hand to begin work on the new fields, part of a broader reconfiguration of the Rec Park facilities, and has about $294,000 through a series of smaller contributions from local businesses, clubs and individuals. Once the town gets to $300,000, crews can start grading and other preliminary work, O'Keefe said.
"We are so close right now," he said. "We could be there within a few days."
The new fields will be ready by the fall of 2016 or spring, 2017, depending on the success with fundraising for the seed and sod, he said.
The centerpiece of the Rec Park overhaul will be two new fields measuring 125 yards by 75 yards to the north of the existing Applejack Field. They will be structured to allow for them to be rotated sideways to reduce wear and tear around certain parts, such as the penalty box areas around goalposts, he said.
The fields could be used for soccer, lacrosse, field hockey, football and other sports requiring an open space. They would provide high quality playing surfaces for local school and club teams, and also, it is hoped, tournaments which could draw substantial numbers of teams from out of town for weekend matches. The two new fields will be named after John Eckhardt, a former BBA teacher and Green Beret who served in Vietnam, and who helped start the school's soccer program, and John McClellan, another former teacher and football coach, he said.
The overhaul will also see the existing skateboard park moved from its present location near the Park House to an area south of Applejack Field. The present skateboard park will become part of another field, one slightly smaller than the two new fields, and which could also be used for overflow parking. Another field, measuring 75-by-50 yards, would be created behind the Park House, with a softball diamond built adjacent to that. Between that and the existing perimeter walkway would come another 120-by-75 yard athletic field, with an running track oval for track and field meets, complete with shot put and long jump areas. A similar sized field (120-by-75-yards) would be built on the other side of the existing walking path, along with a parking area sufficient to hold 204 vehicles. The existing maintenance sheds and Lions Club barn would remain in place as is, according to the park's master plan.
When finished, there will be a total of seven fields; one for baseball, one for softball and the others available for other school and club sports like soccer, lacrosse and football across a total of 200,000 square feet of area.
The fields would also be constructed to high standards, using quality topsoil and compost and maintained to keep them level and without the dips that develop over time which undermine playing surfaces if left unattended, he said.
"There are a lot of moving parts, but we've worked on this endlessly to figure out what's the best way to maximize the park for the community and how do we get more tournaments here too," O'Keefe said.
Combined with existing fields elsewhere around town, such as those at the nearby Manchester Elementary Middle School, Maple Street School and Burr and Burton, the prospect of hosting soccer, lacrosse or field hockey tournaments with upwards of 150 teams participating becomes a realistic possibility, he said.
Such tournaments, between players, coaches and family members, could draw about 5,000-6,000 people to the town for a weekend event, bringing a windfall of potential business for area stores, lodging establishments and restaurants. The idea would be to try and hold them during the spring months from April into June, then again in the fall months, excluding Columbus Day weekend, during so-called "shoulder seasons" outside of existing peak visitor times.
Right now there are few other places in Vermont that could host tournaments of that size, said John O'Connor, the coach of Castleton University's men's soccer team. Essex Junction and Burlington area do, but there is nothing else comparable in southern Vermont, he added.
A key is to have enough fields to work with, so they aren't all used so extensively that they need ongoing maintenance or are worn out, he said.
"The big issue (with tournaments) is to have enough space where you can shut down fields and allow the grass and field to recover," he said. "Roughly every five or six years, a field needs to take a break for a year."
But Manchester would be a great place to hold soccer tournaments, or others, given its location and the existing presence of the town's other attractions, he said.
As part of a start of bringing more teams to the enhanced Rec Park, his Castleton soccer squad will play a preseason game against a team from the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, of North Adams, Mass., on Aug. 27.
Other challenges include providing adequate parking and corralling enough referees for that many contests at once, O'Keefe said. However, with entrance fees of $300-$500 per team, they can be substantial money-makers, even if the town were to hire an outside management team to run and coordinate them, he said.
"It's a big business, and it's time Manchester develops something like this," he said.