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Turf Decisions: G-C considers improving high school football field

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GREENFIELD — The Greenfield-Central football team won’t hit the road for another month, but G-C administrators and coaches will visit various other high school stadiums well before the Cougars head to Mt. Vernon on Sept. 5 for a Week 3 battle.

A committee commissioned by the G-C school board two months ago is planning to tour several area high schools which have switched from natural grass football fields to artificial turf.

The committee was formed to study the possibility of a field upgrade at G-C and, through three meetings, the group has come to at least one conclusion:

“Whether it’s replacing it with natural or going with artificial … we need to do something with that field,” committee chairman and high school associate assistant principal Dave Beal said Tuesday during its most recent meeting.

A large swath of the G-C complex, including buildings and athletic facilities, have undergone renovation the last decade, but the natural grass football field has been without an upgrade since the high school was built in 1969, save for routine maintenance.

Today, according to coaches, committee members and school board members, the field is uneven, with various dead spots, multiple types of grass and just in generally rough shape.

“While we have accomplished much in the way of school facility improvements … we have not been good stewards of that area,” school board member Retta Livengood said during the regular meeting of the board July 14, when it heard a progress report from the committee, which includes Beal, superindent Harold Olin, high school principal Steve Bryant, school board member Ray Kerkhof, corporation business manager Tony Zurwell and high school athletic director Jared Manning.

The group is considering two options, either of which will ultimately have to be approved by the school board: a complete overhaul of the natural grass field or the installation of artificial turf.

A renovation via natural grass could cost between $100,000 and $150,000, according to Kari Vilamaa, president of Barton-Coe-Vilamaa, an architectural and engineering firm which has consulted on several natural grass and artificial turf projects around the state.

Vilamaa and Andy Bearman of Commonwealth Engineers were invited to speak to the committee Tuesday as part of the group’s fact-finding mission.

The natural grass overhaul would include laser and soil grading, new drainage and irrigation and, likely in G-C’s case, new sod.

A field renovation can be done with grass seed instead of sod, but that would require a missed season of home football games in order to give the seed enough time to take hold.

“If it’s a revamp of the natural turf, then getting grass to grow in time is almost impossible,” Bearman said. “It could be a whole year before everything takes root and is strong enough to withstand the abuse.”

G-C officials said grass seed is not an ideal option. If sod was used, it could go down as late as November (depending on weather) and be ready for play the next fall. Artificial turf would likely be installed beginning as soon as the final track and field meet in late May and finished by mid-August in time for football kickoff. The committee hasn’t determined if they’ll aim for a 2015 or 2016 completion.

A primary benefit of a natural grass renovation is the cost, which is significantly less than the $700,000 to $900,000 G-C could expect to spend on artificial turf, according to Vilamaa.

A natural grass renovation could be paid out of the capital projects fund, while artificial turf expenses might require a mix of the CPF, in-kind donations, fundraising or a bond. The school board will have the final say on any outlays.

“From my standpoint, my concern is cost,” Livengood said. “I don’t know what we can afford to do, but until we have specific numbers, it’s very difficult to make that decision.

“I look at cost and I struggle with that. We need to do our due diligence. I appreciate the committee’s work, but we need to see some numbers.”

The committee has not solicited bids from companies for either natural grass renovation or artificial turf. The group indicated it wants to be as educated as possible on the processes prior to being pitched by vendors.

“All these guys are selling their product, with angles to make their product look better,” Vilamaa told the committee.

He recommended that information specific to the possible G-C project is created and then given to companies to bid on, as opposed to companies making more open-ended proposals.

It’s as part of the education process that some members of the committee, along with G-C football head coach Roger Dodson, will tour area fields that have been converted to artificial turf.

Of 55 football schools in the Indianapolis area, 36 play on artificial turf. The committee is considering taking a trip to visit the currently under-construction Grand Park in Westfield. Other nearby artificial turf facilities include high schools at fellow Hoosier Heritage Conference member Delta, as well as Knightstown, Noblesville and a host of Indianapolis schools.

Greenfield-Central, with an enrollment of nearly 1,500, is one of the largest Central Indiana schools without artificial turf.

The plus side of artificial turf most discussed by the committee, and what it hopes to learn more about on its tour, is the increased usage the synthetic surface receives.

Because a grass field can only take so much wear and tear, it’s usually saved for the football team. And most gridiron squads with grass fields, including G-C, have practice fields away from the stadium to keep the game-night field in playable condition.

Extensive usage is of much less concern on an artificial surface, which is generally made up of a gravel base layer covered by padding, foam and the synthetic blades of grass with an infill of sand and recycled rubber engineered to withstand repeated pounding.

At G-C, physical education classes and band practice/competitions could be held on an artificial turf field much more than is currently the situation, committee members said. If artificial turf is installed, it could be used for practice by various teams, including soccer, baseball and softball, when their regular fields are saturated by rain and mud.

Various community events could also be held at the stadium, the committee discussed.

“From a school board standpoint, more participation and more activity on the field, that’s what I’m looking for,” said Kerkhof, a member of the school board as well as the committee. “It should be a multi-purpose field, not just a football field.”

At Tuesday’s committee meeting, Vilamaa shared a power point presentation that was created by Bluffton High School when it was considering artificial turf, which was ultimately installed in 2011 at the small school south of Fort Wayne. (According to Irving Materials’ website, the “the first shovel of dirt” was moved June 24 and the project was finished by Bluffton’s first football game on Aug. 26).

Bluffton estimated overall usage of the football field would increase from approximately 100 hours annually to 700 hours annually. Vilamaa said that type of increase is common for schools who switch to artificial turf.

“Bluffton’s numbers are probably pretty accurate to what ours would be in terms of programming,” said Olin, G-C’s first-year superintendent. “Even though they are a much smaller school, they have the same types of programs. I think we’d see similar numbers.”

The committee plans to meet again Sept. 2, following its road trip.

“We’ll go with a long list of questions,” Beal said. “That’s the point of the visits. We’ll want to know exactly which product they used, how much it cost, how they paid for it, which company they used.”

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