Creating facility partnerships: reduce costs & maximize resource availability

By Brandon Putman, CSFM

Many times in the turfgrass management profession, we are asked to hold more games or events without increasing our operational expenses. We are tasked with being creative in accomplishing the cultural practices that are required for safe, playable fields, but sometimes without the necessary equipment. Capital purchases of equipment are not typically budgeted for unless we can justify them. Turfgrass managers must act as a mechanic or plumber or meteorologist, but are rarely an expert in each specialty. We must allow time for hiring processes and safety training, which deter from work in the field. We do not always reach the quantity amounts required to take advantage of discounted pricing when purchasing yearly supplies. Many of these financial operating and resource availability challenges that athletic field managers face can be reduced or solved by creating partnerships between local facilities or facilities within the same organization.

In the City of Peoria, AZ, we have developed several strategies in coordinating the operations between our three sports facilities: the Peoria Sports Complex, Rio Vista Community Park and Pioneer Community Park. Each of our three facilities has select specialty equipment, for example aerators, a verticutter, turf vacuums and tractors, which are rotated between the locations in order to maximize use of these seasonal equipment pieces. For instance, each of our facilities has turf vacuums, but during overseeding operations the Peoria Sports Complex uses all the vacuums for this process.

A few times throughout the year we want to complete cultural practices at the same time, which takes dedicated supervisors and some internal customer service between them to schedule the units appropriately. Aerification is one of those cultural practices, but because aerification has several steps to it, we are able to space the equipment pieces out, so that each location can be working on one of those steps. Rotating and scheduling of our specialty equipment is made easier by a city contract with a towing company that was initiated and created by our police department. Not all partnerships are with other turf entities like athletic facilities or golf courses. Since the police department relies heavily on towing services for traffic operations, the towing company provides free towing of city vehicles and equipment as part of the contract.   Previously, as an operation manager with the Brickman Group Sports Turf Services (STS), in which I coordinated the maintenance efforts between several Atlantic League stadiums, we would also do the same sharing of specialty equipment between stadiums. In this instance, we were able to find an independent flatbed tow truck operator that would transport our equipment units in exchange for tickets to games or previous year’s merchandise.

Reduce capital expenditures

Sharing of equipment has enabled the Peoria Sports Facilities division to reduce capital expenditures on equipment. We have an aerator that was purchased using Rio Vista’s budget, the verticutter and large turf vacuum was purchased with Pioneer’s budget and laser grading equipment was purchased by the Sports Complex. Since all the facilities are collectively part of the same organization, we are able to save on having to purchase units for each site. Not purchasing those specialty units has saved our divisional organization in excess of $127,000. This was also true with Brickman STS, and even more so, we pooled together savings from operational budgets to purchase these types of equipment, since there was not a capital budget for them. Also, with Brickman we did friendly borrowing from the local branch or area golf courses for single uses, many times just for tickets to a game. Aside from the operational savings by foregoing specialty equipment, the Peoria Sports Facilities division was able to realize collective capital purchase incentives for our regular use equipment purchases. By collectively buying mowers and 3-wheelers, we earned a $12,000 incentive in the form of preventative maintenance kits from the vendor.

In an effort to align the replacement of older equipment between the three complexes, a depreciation schedule is used to determine a threshold of maintenance costs that will be put into a particular piece of equipment to keep it running. It is anticipated that the de-fleeted equipment will be traded to the local school district where the automotive shop at the high school will keep the mowers and utility carts going for the agricultural department to use on the high school’s athletic fields. This opportunity with the school district should allow the agricultural department to thrive and thus continue providing our facilities with part time internship students.

The City of Peoria has a unique situation of having a high school with a strong Career and Technical Education (CTE) program in agriculture. Students have the opportunity to gain exposure and experience to nursery production, biotech, livestock science and of course turfgrass management. The Sports Facilities division has partnered with the school as an opportunity to be a guest lecturer in the class and for students to tour our operations. We have also made several site visits to the schools athletic fields to consult with coaches and school representatives on turf management best maintenance practices. In turn, the CTE program has made us a preferred employer for their students, and we employ many interested and motivated students in our part-time staff. By working with coaches we have also created open communication when it comes to hiring student athletes as a way to show young athletes respect for the playing field. In many cases the training we provide to these students at the Sports Facilities is taken back to the fields on which they play.

Hiring procedures

Hiring procedures are time-consuming to the operations of our facilities, which is why we have combined those efforts as well. When we post part-time positions, they are for all three locations so that staffing demands are met in one large recruitment versus several small recruitments. This requires less staff sitting on interview panels, conducting reference checks and processing hiring packets thus having more time spent on the fields. Combined hiring also creates the best fit for employees to be successful by assigning them to the facility that suits them. The development and implementation of training programs for both new and existing employees at all locations has created consistency between them, where seasonal or event related peaks in staffing demands are met with staff normally assigned to other locations.

In terms of full-time employees, we have created specialty positions that rotate between the facilities. So, just as specialty equipment is rotated based on need, also are the full and part time staffs. We employ an irrigation technician that flexes his schedule to provide coverage at three locations including emergency fixes. The equipment mechanic is setup on a rotational schedule at three locations to conduct equipment checks and preventative maintenance as well as repairs. These floating specialty positions allow for coverage using one employee between our three complexes, which allows us to offer more competitive wages using the three labor budgets. At the same time the organization saves between $77,000 and $103,000 annually by not having an irrigation tech and mechanic at each facility, and those figures do not include the savings from benefit packages. This floating employee model has proved to be so successful that we are now evaluating our costs of contracted spray applications, both structural and landscape, with internal spraying demands and applicator’s license fees. If the cost numbers work out right, then we will begin the process of creating a spray technician to meet the demands of the three facilities.

In coordinating efforts between the complexes, it is important to have a consistent safety program, which includes compliance with OSHA and labor laws. All of our staff undergoes the same training, using the same learning materials, which provides necessary information to keep everyone on the same page when it comes to safety.

Bulk purchasing

Another strategy to combine efforts is in the bulk purchasing of fertilizers and pesticides. When working for Brickman STS, our facilities were all single stadium fields in a relatively similar climate of the mid-Atlantic region. Because of this region’s high disease pressure, fungicides are a critical element to an agronomic plan. Since I was purchasing for only one baseball field, I did not reach the thresholds required by vendors to qualify for early ordering programs.

The early order program is more tailored to golf courses with hundreds of acres of turf to purchase their fertilizers and pesticides pre season at a discount. By getting our mid-Atlantic stadiums on similar agronomic plans, we were able to meet some of these purchasing amounts in order to capitalize on the early order programs and bulk ordering discounts. This concept also worked with infield conditioner selection and mound clay use, once the groundskeepers got past personal preferences. Putting these stadiums on the same products also helped if one complex’s supplies ran out, say due to a poorly timed thunderstorm, other stadiums could meet the needs without the delay of purchasing processes.

Partnerships and sharing is also about the exchanging of ideas. By getting turf managers together to determine agronomic programs the opportunity to learn from others increases. There are many different nuances to the cultural practices of verticutting and aerification. When we schedule the rotation of equipment, sharing of different cultural practice experiences are discussed. The conversation naturally transitions into comparing the differences or similarities in the procedures soon to be undertaken. We ask ourselves, “What practices are proving to be successful at another location that can be implemented here?”

An inclement weather comparison between locations is another instance when information is shared. As with Brickman STS, if one of the stadiums was in the midst of a storm, that information of severity and timing was relayed to the groundskeeper downwind to be prepared for it. If one stadium is playing their game and another is not, why? Was it the weather patterns or is field drainage of concern? This is true in the City of Peoria holding multiple tournaments concurrently, and also the weather station ET data collected is shared over the network with the complexes to control their irrigation scheduling. This sharing of information across the facilities aids in keeping operations and maintenance practices efficient.

These are just some of the examples of developing partnerships between facilities to maximize resources by sharing equipment or employees, bulk purchasing, and exchanging of ideas for best management practices. Being creative with the resources that your organization has and integrating the resources of others can provide the means to improve your fields’ quality. Remember, to avoid creating a situation or an impression of taking advantage of other facilities, sharing and cooperation should be more about the exchanging of ideas and helping others rather than forced expectations.

Brandon Putman, CSFM, is the maintenance coordinator for the City of Peoria (AZ) sports facilities.