High schools continue to see synthetic as maintenance-free option that brings in $$

Work crews of four and five men unfurled heavy, spooled sheets of green artificial turf this past week at East Chambers High School (TX) the latest of 10 area football programs to opt for synthetic fields over natural grass.

For some districts, like Lumberton, turf is a money-saver because fake grass never needs to be mowed or watered. Players and coaches in other districts, including Central High School‘s Toby Foreman, say playing on synthetic turf allows for more consistent plays and cuts down on injuries.

Nearly all of the districts with artificial turf fields said one of the best perks is the ability to rent out their stadiums during the playoffs.

“I’ve been hoping we would go this direction for some time and we were finally able to find the funding,” said East Chambers athletic director and football coach Russ Sutherland on Thursday. “It cleans the facility up and makes us marketable for hosting playoff games. It’s something we already do for basketball and volleyball, and now we are able to add this option.”

East Chambers, which has about 416 students enrolled in the district’s high school, spent $981,000 to renovate the field at Buccaneer Stadium.

Superintendent Scott Campbell said the new field could save the district up to $20,000 in annual maintenance fees, which include fertilization, watering, mowing and repainting.

With the addition of high school soccer to the district’s list of sports this coming school year, Campbell said keeping the grass maintained year round was becoming an “impossible task.”

Campbell said he expects the field renovations will entice other districts looking for neutral places for football and soccer playoff games to come calling, the same way the district’s new gymnasium did in 2008 for basketball.

“It was a boon for our community when we built that gym,” Campbell said. “When you host these playoff games, it brings more people into Winnie. They eat at our restaurants, stay at hotels.”

Rental fees for the stadium have not been set, Campbell said, but he expects the price to be around $2,000 to $3,000 per game — a fee that is split between the two schools renting the facility.

That cost is relatively low compared to the $6,000 to $8,000 that Campbell said East Chambers paid to use the New Caney stadium during the first round of the playoffs last year.

Tractors and work equipment still lined the 3,500-capacity East Chambers stadium late last week, but Sutherland said he thought the installation work would be completed a full week before his team hosts Kelly Catholic High School in the school’s Aug. 26 home-opener.

“It’s just nice to see some progress,” said Sutherland, whose program joins Hardin and Hitchcock as the only three school districts with synthetic turf fields in District 12-3A-I.

Hardin, with a high school enrollment of around 339 students, spent $700,000 in 2009 on a turf field for Hornet Stadium.

“We love having it,” said Hardin superintendent Brandon Peavy. “It’s always available for athletics or our fine art programs regardless of the weather. The maintenance needs are also very limited.”

Field rentals

Jasper athletic director and head football coach Darrell Barbay said the completion in 2015 of the district’s $5.4 million athletic complex, which includes artificial turf fields for every sport, made his school an attractive host for softball and baseball teams statewide looking for dry playoff locations during a rainy May.

In a span of 31 days, Barbay said he watched more than 40 games played on both fields, allowing the district to make thousands of dollars in rental fees.

Rental fees for the softball and baseball fields are $600 apiece and the football field can be rented out for $3,500, according to Barbay.

The rates do not cover custodial and security fees or the service fees for utilities.

“Look, you’re never going to make $5.4 million from letting people rent your facilities,” Barbay said. “But we really want people to come use them, and come to our town. When schools come to play here, they bring lots of people. People who eat at our restaurants and stimulate the local economy.”

Connie King, owner of Smitty’s Smoke House in Jasper, said she sees her profits increase by as much as 25 percent a day when the high school hosts athletic events.

“It’s definitely been a boost to our economy and the recognition our local businesses get from people who may not usually come into town,” King said.

The turf installation at Jasper’s football stadium was completed ahead of the 2015 season, but there weren’t enough seats to accommodate varsity games. Middle school, freshman and junior varsity games were held at the new Bulldog Stadium while the varsity team continued to play home games at the old Alamo Stadium.

Barbay said the new bleachers will likely not be ready for his team’s Aug. 26 home-opener against Little Cypress-Mauriceville, but he said he plans to coach his first home game on the turf on Sept. 16 against Bryan-Rudder.

“It’s kind of like building a house,” Barbay said. “You know you are going to get one eventually, and although you’re impatient, you want to make sure it’s right before you move in.”

Maintenance savings

In Lumberton, the synthetic turf installation this summer stemmed from a larger need to replace the surrounding track, which was in decay after 15 years of use.

Because of a steady stream in revenue and low interest rates, Superintendent John Valastro said the initial budget of $500,000 for the track was increased to $1.25 million, with school board approval, to cover the costs of the new turf.

Valastro said it became prudent for the district to invest in synthetic turf because the school’s stadium hosts anywhere from 200 to 300 events during the calendar year, including youth and high school football, boys’ and girls’ soccer, and cheerleading, dance team and band practices.

“Around 1,000 kids spend time on that field every year,” said Lumberton athletic director and football coach Chris Babin, who said his team plans to use the turf field for the first time on Monday. “The damage that does with grass, our groundskeeper couldn’t keep up with it. You think about it, it’s not just football – everyone uses that field.”

The plan, Valastro said, is not to get the money back by renting out the facility, but “to improve the viability, longevity and ease of being able to maintain the amount of events the field hosts.”

Valastro said where the district will save money in the long run is when the synthetic turf has to be replaced.

Lumberton was given a 12-year guarantee on the turf and a $200,000 replacement offer, he said. The cost to replace turf in 13 years will average about what the district would have spent in that time on a grass field’s maintenance and upkeep, he said.

Advantage for athletes

In addition to saving or making districts money, artificial turf fields can also provide a competitive advantage to athletes who use it, according to players and coaches.

“It’s so hard to run and cut on the grass when it gets wet because it gets all muddy,” said Lumberton senior linebacker Keaton Upshaw. “I’m definitely excited to get out there and see what the turf is like.”

Central head coach Toby Foreman said his team practices on a grass field outside of the high school, but plays on a synthetic turf field at the Carrol A. “Butch” Thomas Center.

Foreman said in his experience, synthetic turf limits the number of ankle injuries during games, especially when there is inclement weather.

“As you know, it rains a lot in Southeast Texas,” Foreman said. “When your field gets soggy, your cleats will not give as much on the grass. There is plenty of give on the turf.”

Foreman said in his four years at Central that he has seen more injuries at practice on the grass than during games on the turf.

In the nine-team District 22-5A, only Vidor, Nederland and Livingston will play home football games on grass this season.

Port Neches-Groves, also in that district, was the first school in the area to install artificial turf in 2008. Beaumont ISD followed suit when the district built the $47 million Thomas Center in 2010. Memorial High School installed turf at its renovated stadium the same year.

Nederland assistant superintendent Mike Laird said the district does not currently have the funds to install turf at Bulldog Stadium, but said if there was that there is no guarantee the district would make the switch.

“Turf is definitely less expensive than grass annually, but you have to think about what happens when that turf wears out and you have to replace it,” Laird said. “That’s a really big expense you have to prepare for down the line.”

Vidor athletic director Jeff Mathews said if he could, he’d start installing an artificial field tomorrow.

“But you have to be a team player,” he siad. “I’m sure when the district is in a position to afford something like turf, it’s a discussion we’ll be able to have.

“Sometimes you just don’t get everything you want.”

DThompson@BeaumontEnterprise.com Twitter.com/daveth89