Community college struggles to pay for synthetic turf field

Proponents of an artificial turf field at Berkshire Community College, Pittsfield, MA say the project, after clearing all regulatory hurdles last year, will finally break ground in May.

The catch? There’s a $600,000 funding gap. The field is coming this spring, regardless of the gap, proponents say of the project first envisioned six years ago, but without support, they’ll have to scale it back.

It will be the first publicly available turf field in the county, and will be made largely of polyester, silica sand and encapsulated crumb rubber. Organizers assert that the planned project will serve as a local launchpad for youth athletics, and so they kicked off a fundraising campaign last week via BCC’s website to fill the gap in its budget. The project goes out to bid in February.

“The opportunity to have a turf field in our community would be a shot in the arm for the community, on and off the field,” said Jim Abel, athletics director for Pittsfield High School and Taconic High School. “Most communities have some sort of multipurpose year-round facility — we don’t have that.”

The field will be located near Paterson Field House, across West Street from the college’s main campus. It’s designed for use in three sports: soccer, football, and men and women’s lacrosse.

As designed, it will take about six weeks to build and will include lights, bleachers, a press box and concession stand. The ability to host games as other counties can will be good for the Berkshires, attorney and former coach Michael MacDonald said, and will spur economic activity around game times.

He said local teams need the field in order to be compliant with the rules of the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association, which oversees high school sports. Without it, championship games that should be happening in the Berkshires end up outsourced to other parts of the state where there are turf fields available.

Most importantly, MacDonald said, the field will serve young athletes, many of whom have to practice indoors or travel to the Pioneer Valley when they need a turf field.

“When I coached, we wouldn’t be on a field until the first game. That’s dangerous,” he said. “It’s about the community. It’s principally about the kids.”

The $2.4 million turf project previously struck controversy among some residents concerned about the artificial field’s impacts on human health and that of wetlands surrounding the property. The group challenged local and regional approvals for the turf field issued by the Department of Environmental Protection, but DEP Commissioner Martin Suuberg affirmed in Aug. 2016 that the field’s permitting process was proper.

The DEP focused its review on the environmental questions and concerns, with officials saying that the safety of the materials used is outside the agency’s jurisdiction. The city’s Board of Health initially voiced concerns about potential links between crumb rubber used in turf fields and cancer, but concluded last fall “due diligence has been done,” given that there’s no proven health risk.

The artificial fields themselves are evolving, and so is research surrounding their potential health impacts. A Washington state study found no links between crumb rubber and cancer. There are no studies, yet, on the encapsulated crumb rubber now used to prevent chemicals in the rubber from leaching out. The Environmental Protection Agency was scheduled to release a more comprehensive study on crumb rubber in January, but the study is almost a year late, with no new release date in sight.

“We are confident there’s no connection,” MacDonald said. “The science has shown there’s no connection.”

He said the impetus for the project came after a rash of snowstorms in fall 2011 forced youth teams in the county to move and reschedule a majority of their games.

“We’ve always seen this community deserves this type of field,” said BCC President Ellen Kennedy. “We’re really excited.”

She said the field will also offer an opportunity to get kids onto the campus at a younger age, thereby “seeing themselves as part of something there.” And she said it will rejuvenate sports at the college, which has a history with successful soccer teams.

Fran Marinaro, a longtime coach at the former St. Joseph Central High School in Pittsfield, said there’s “an athletic pedigree in this community that’s second to none.”

“There’s a great deal of pride in that,” he told The Eagle.

To have facilities that are “second rate,” he said, makes athletes in the county feel a lack of financial support.

“This is going to energize our youth,” said Sheriff Thomas Bowler. “And we have a great deal that are at risk.”

MacDonald said the legal conflict surrounding the field added $185,000 to the project, plus about $110,000 in improvements made in an effort to appease opponents and $70,000 in related environmental consultation.

So far, funding for the project came largely from a $1.1 million state bond bill. Other contributors include City Hall, which kicked in $200,000, The Feigenbaum Foundation, Berkshire Bank, Greylock Federal Credit Union, the Berkshire County Sheriff’s Department and the Bill Belichick Foundation, which contributed $5,000.

User fees paid on a sliding scale will support a field maintenance and replacement fund. Security at sporting events and other one-time costs will come separately.

As for the environmental concerns, Kennedy said the college will be able to address “a whole swath of issues” in the redesign. She said project organizers brought in a hydrologist and engaged the college’s environmental faculty and students to ensure that the project fixes existing drainage issues on the site.

Abel said natural fields that youth teams use currently are subject to weather and all of the corresponding drainage issues. And, they’re not as durable in the face of many charging feet.

“We’re at the mercy of Mother Nature quite a bit, and many of our facilities don’t have the drainage or the accommodations to truly put on a top-quality event,” he said. “A lot of times we’re canceling and rescheduling our games when a lot of other teams in other communities are playing their games the lack of quality facilities puts us a step behind.” – By Amanda Drane, The Berkshire Eagle,