Water on Spinelli Field

Spinelli Field after a rainfall.

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BENNINGTON — Will a proposal for improvements to the playing field and track at the Spinelli athletic complex come back to Mount Anthony Union School District voters at Town Meeting?

That decision has yet to be made. But members of the ad-hoc committee that has been working on the project, in a public meeting held Thursday night, discussed why voters in the district turned aside the proposal, and whether proponents can sharpen their pencils and return with a project voters will support.

Two MAU Board of Directors members who had publicly criticized the project, Jackie Kelly and Fran Kinney, indicated they could support a less ambitious alternative. Both voiced doubts that it would otherwise pass if placed on the March Town Meeting agenda, saying taxpayers can’t afford it and won’t support it.

Mike Molloy, the chair of the Spinelli committee, didn’t commit to putting the proposal on the Town Meeting ballot. He said the full committee would have to decide whether to move forward, and how.

Much of the public meeting was a post-mortem focused on why 59 percent of district voters turned down the plan to rebuild the running track, widen the athletic field, install energy-efficient lights and add a utility building that would also include accessible bathrooms.

Communication was cited as a potential downfall — especially when it came to conveying the reasons the committee chose synthetic turf instead of grass, and how much the project would cost.

While the potential presence of PFAS chemicals in the plastics used in synthetic turf was a concern for some voters, speakers said the potential cost, and impact on property taxes, was the likely reason the proposed bond authorization of up to $3.5 million failed by a vote of 1,217 against to 841 in favor.

The synthetic field option costs more upfront, but the committee decided that investment was worth it because it would allow students and the community to use the field year-round, regardless of weather conditions. At present, the poor drainage at Spinelli Field prevents its use in the spring, and limits its use in late fall.

“People didn’t say to me this project doesn’t need to happen,” said MAU football coach and math teacher Chad Gordon. But they were concerned about the price tag and about the use of plastics that could contain PFOA, he added.

“We need to address those concerns,” he said. And on the financial side, “we need to do a better job of educating people.”

It was noted during the meeting that the $3.5 million authorization was the maximum that would have been borrowed for the project, and included contingency money for a job it was hoped could be completed for $2.6 million.

Molloy said the committee opted for synthetic turf because it wanted the most use possible for the investment.

“We were very concerned about spending all this money, asking taxpayers to do it, and not getting bang for the buck,” he said. The synthetic surface would give the community “the extra usage we were looking for.”

Speakers’ opinions on whether the plan should change to reduce costs varied greatly.

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Kelly said the district should do only what it needs to do to improve the facilities and try to find grant funding to pay for it, and suggested considering existing grass fields at the former Southern Vermont College or at Willow Park.

“I can tell you [who voted against the plan]. It was the seniors,” Kelly said. “They don’t have the money to increase 300 dollars to tax [bills] revenue for schools.”

Kelly described Bennington’s senior citizens as facing tough times due to the failure of Social Security to keep pace with inflation, and therefore unable to afford property tax increases. “They’re just keeping their heads above water,” she said.

“Half of this town are seniors,” she added.

According to the U.S. Census’ 2019 American Community Survey, 21.5 percent of Bennington is aged 65 and older.

Jason Morrissey said he supported the project and wanted to see it move forward. He said the proposal was “a relatively basic synthetic turf field with amenities you expect.”

“Yes, we all pay taxes. I used to spend every Friday night of my life there. It was worn down 30 years ago,” Morrissey said.

“I don’t think cutting it solves the problem either. The point is, is it a good project or not?” he added. “Saving $500,000 on a 20-year project to cut corners today is bad business.”

Kinney, who voted against the proposal and roundly criticized it, said Thursday that he isn’t against making improvements. ”I’m against the turf field, and I’m definitely against a stupid building for $354,000. I think it’s asinine,” he said.

Dave Frederickson, a member of the MAU Board, said replacement of the lights should not be removed as a cost-cutting measure. The proposal included LED lights, which use less electricity.

No matter what happens, resurfacing the track is a necessity, MAU athletic director Ashley Hoyt said.

“The track has four sinkholes and it hasn’t been resurfaced since before I was in high school. That’s a long time,” Hoyt said. “The track is almost non-negotiable. It’s a safety issue.”

Hoyt also said doing the work a bit at a time would be more expensive than tackling all at once — a point she said was made by Superintendent James Culkeen early in the planning process. “That’s how this all started,” she said.

“I’ll say it to everyone publicly: I’d rather play soccer on a beautiful grass field,” Molloy, the boys’ soccer coach at MAU, said. “But in Vermont, the best grass fields are the ones nobody uses. If you don’t use it, it’s going to stay really nice. But we want to use it all the time. We want [physical education class] kids to use it. We want classes to use it.”

Greg Sukiennik covers government and politics for Vermont News & Media. Reach him at gsukiennik@benningtonbanner.com.

Greg Sukiennik has worked at all three Vermont News & Media newspapers and was their managing editor from 2017-19. He previously worked for ESPN.com, for the AP in Boston, and at The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, Mass.


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