School district, county sign agreement on turf field use

Cecil County (MD) Public Schools and the Cecil County government signed off on an agreement last week that streamlines the way the public will rent turf athletic fields as both embark on a decade-long project to install such fields at county high schools.

“Our collaborative partnership will result in healthier, physically active communities,” said Cecil County Executive Alan McCarthy during a Wednesday afternoon press conference at the County Administration Building. “The investment of county dollars will feature the balance between strategic growth of recreational facilities through the county and the renovation of the currently existing facilities. This is far more efficient.”

McCarthy also said he viewed the expansion of parks and rec programs in the county as one prong in the fight against the growing opioid epidemic, which has claimed more than 40 lives in the county already this year, a 50 percent increase over 2016.

“It will provide our young people with more opportunities to get involved with wholesome activities,” he said, later adding, “If this can keep one, two, three or four children out of harm’s way, I think it’s been a very good capital investment.”

CCPS Superintendent D’Ette Devine said she was excited to bring a new level of resources to Cecil County student athletes.

“Our CCPS athletes will finally enjoy what Harford County competition has had for quite some time,” she said, later adding, “I think it’s a good investment for the youth of this county to be able to provide them with opportunities that their peers around the state already enjoy.”

The agreement, formalized as a 30-year memorandum of understanding between the parties, pertains to the new turf fields being developed at CCPS high schools, but also creates connections between the school system and Cecil County Department of Parks and Recreation for mutual usage of facilities. That connection will allow parks and rec to host its programs in places it previously could not, as it was bound to county-owned lands. With no county-owned recreational parkland below the C&D Canal, it could open up new opportunities closer to home for southern county residents.

While the scheduling authority for the newly completed Perryville High School turf field at the football stadium, as well as any future turf fields at schools, will now move to the county parks and rec department, CCPS will retain scheduling authority for any other school facility. After examining how to help address deferred system wide maintenance costs, CCPS began charging outside groups for use of its facilities three years ago, and last year brought in about $90,000.

Under the agreement, outside groups from Cecil County will be charged $30 an hour to rent a turf field at a CCPS high school, while non-resident groups will be charged $150 an hour. For both, a $75 per hour fee will be charged for usage of field lights during nighttime events.

The agreement gives priority of usage for the turf fields to a school’s athletics, education and extracurricular programs, and user groups connected to the school, including parent-teacher associations and boosters, up until 6:30 p.m. on weekdays. Between 6:30 and 10 p.m. on weekdays, only a school’s team game can supersede the parks and rec’s priority to the turf fields. On Saturdays during the school year, CCPS will have priority usage until noon, with only a rescheduled team game or annual school event superseding parks and rec’s priority afterward. On Sundays, as well as during summer months, parks and rec will have priority all-day.

Maintenance of the new turf fields will be borne by both the county and school system, with each responsible for damage during their usage. Any outside organization that uses the facilities must show proof of insurance for damage liability.

The MOU also explicitly prohibits advertisements of any kind while using the facilities, which potentially could help offset costs associated with a youth sports league, for example. Devine said is something could be reconsidered in the future, and County Parks and Rec Director Clyde Van Dyke noted that the MOU will be reviewed by both parties every year for potential changes.

While CCPS has received feedback from outside user groups on facility rentals in the past, neither CCPS nor the parks and rec department sought input from the public on the MOU prior to its signing Wednesday, according to officials.

The goal remains to replace all five grass high school fields with synthetic turf within the next decade, completing about one school every two years, officials said. The first field, at Perryville High School, will open to the public later this month.

The next school to be prioritized has not been identified, but factors such as proximity to Calvert Regional Park — where the county funded the installation of one turf field and seven sodded fields, existing field conditions and user base would be considered, Van Dyke said. While Rising Sun High School is less than 2 miles away from Calvert Regional Park, he added that the school’s field was still proposed to be upgraded, explaining that the high school would often be rented along with Calvert Regional Park for large tournaments that need in excess of 12 fields.

When it was first proposed nearly a decade ago and lobbied to fruition during former County Executive Tari Moore’s administration, Calvert Regional Park aimed to compete for a slice of the lucrative sports tourism industry. Open for two years now, Calvert Regional Park’s usage has been “consistently growing,” Van Dyke said.

“It’s not just our in-house programs, but all CCPS schools have competed there and a growing number of independent users, such as soccer programs and the like,” he said, specifying that currently use is more one-off games or practices rather than large tournaments. “We have three more fields at Calvert being sodded as we speak, and as those come online, we’ll be more competitive in the marketplace.”

While other mega-complex projects have taken off in the region, such as DE Turf in Frederica, Del., which features 12 turf fields, Van Dyke noted that such facilities come with a much higher cost to users.

“As marketplace continues to get saturated with user groups and tournament organizations, they’re looking for quality facilities at better prices. And right now that’s what we’re offering,” he said, noting the parks and rec department consistently receive positive reviews from users.

Calvert Regional Park may also target differing user bases than competitors, as evidenced by the recent contract to host the University of Delaware’s intramural ultimate Frisbee games, Van Dyke said.

While some critics have questioned spending about $1 million per turf field when other needs exist, Van Dyke noted that grass athletic fields are difficult to maintain because their constant usage doesn’t allow time for reseeding and repair. Time of lesser usage, namely summer and winter, aren’t conducive for growing grass.

McCarthy also added that he does not believe that the turf fields need to produce a large amount of revenue in order to be deemed a success.

“In my opinion, this is a quality of life issue for the resident of Cecil County and if we happen to make a little bit of money to defray the expense that’s perfectly fine. But I never thought for one second that these would be major income-producing events,” he said, noting that Cecil County spends only a fraction of what other counties do on parks and recreation.

Perryville Mayor Jim Eberhardt also noted that the turf field projects also produce something more intangible.

“Don’t overlook the immeasurable sense of pride for the student body and the community,” he said.

McCarthy agreed, adding, “There is a lot of pride that comes along with having nice things. This is something you can really showcase.”