Freeport, Pownal, Durham residents weigh $2.9M bond for athletic facilities

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FREEPORT — A fundraising campaign is underway as voters prepare to decide whether to borrow $2.9 million for construction of an athletic complex at Freeport High School.

The Regional School Unit 5 Board of Directors voted in March to put the bond in a June 14 referendum, and held a public hearing on the issue on May 25.

Craig Sickels, the RSU 5 athletic administrator, said the high school sports complex would include an eight-lane track, artificial turf field, lights, bleachers, a press box and concessions area.

The fundraising campaign was launched on Tuesday, led by Olympic gold medalist Joan Benoit-Samuelson and Larry Wold, president of TD Bank. A committee has been created to secure major gift support that would help offset the total cost of the project, Sickels said.

“If we could raise all $2.9 million that would be great,” he said. “But anything we raise will benefit the taxpayers and reduce their payments.”

The campus complex would help alleviate some of the overlap, overuse and overcrowding experienced at the high school and middle school athletic fields, Sickels said.

He also said the complex would benefit students and the community by satisfying unmet field needs, increasing safety, providing additional practice space and the ability to host tournaments, and providing an economic benefit for the community.

Sickels said while the turf field is more expensive to build than sod, the district could save about $200,000 in maintenance costs over 10 years.

The first payment is $56,000 in interest, and if approved on June 14, is already in the school budget. If the referendum does not pass, RSU 5 Superintendent Shannon Welsh said the money allocated for the interest payment will remain in contingency.

The first principal payment in fiscal year 2013 is $299,000.

The cost of the 15-year, $2.9 million bond would be shared between the three communities according to the district’s cost-sharing agreement. Freeport is responsible for 66 percent, Durham pays 21 percent and Pownal is responsible for 13 percent.

Residents of Freeport would be responsible for $198,000. Based on 2010 valuations, Sickels said the bond payment would cost each Freeport taxpayer nearly 16 cents per $1,000 of assessed value. A Freeport resident with a $200,000 home could expect to pay an additional $31.20 per year.

Durham residents would be responsible for $64,000 or an additional 15 cents per $1,000 of assessed value. A resident with a $200,000 home could expect to pay $30 more per year.

Pownal residents would be responsible for $38,000 of the payment and could expect to pay an additional $10 per year in taxes, or 50 cents per $1,000 of assessed value.

Anne-Marie Davee, a Freeport parent and resident, said she supports the Freeport High School campus complex. She said it is unsafe for students to run along Main Street, dodging heavy traffic and other pedestrians. She said the students deserve the same facilities as other schools in the area.

“Quality recreation and athletic facilities build pride in our communities,” Davee said. “To have a track team without a track makes it difficult to build that sense of pride.”

But at the May 25 RSU 5 public hearing and board meeting, Freeport resident Zachary Ward called the proposal an irresponsible allocation of taxpayer money.

He said the school district has far more pressing infrastructure and capital needs to address at a time when many residents are struggling to make ends meet. He said he is concerned about the environmental impact of a turf field and the introduction of petroleum-based products to the soil and watershed.

Ward also said building a sports complex in the middle of a residential neighborhood in the downtown area of a high-traffic tourist town is just not a good idea. 

Betty Liscomb of Durham said she, too, opposes the $2.9 million bond. She said many senior citizens cannot afford to heat their homes and although it sounds like a wonderful project, the sports complex is “over the top.”

Some residents were confused about this and other fields projects.

In addition to the high school sports complex, there is another fields project in Freeport. A coalition of Freeport residents and business owners formed Freeport Fields and Trails, and plan to build a multi-use complex on Hunter Road. The project includes four playing fields, three baseball diamonds, trails for Nordic skiing and mountain biking and running and a recreational lodge.

The Town Council recently allocated $2.3 million from an excess fund balance for the nearly $3.2 million project. The Freeport Fields and Trails group also received a $500,000 gift from L.L. Bean and will raise the balance privately.

Although the two groups worked together, Sickels said the Freeport Fields and Trails group is separate from the campus complex project.

“There are two projects, but one vision,” Sickels said. “Nothing is duplicated, both projects are necessary. Without Hunter Road there would be no additional fields to use. Without the campus complex there will be no track, lights and bleachers.”

Seacoast United of Maine, a nonprofit organization based in Topsham, also has plans to build artificial turf fields in Freeport. The organization purchased about 12 acres of land behind the Pownal Road recreational facility from the town, and plans to build a domed stadium and a turf field on the land. A second turf field will be located on the Hunter Road property, due to wetland issues on the town land.

There will be informational meetings about the athletic complex proposal at the Durham Community School on June 2 at 7 p.m., on June 6 at the Freeport Performing Arts Center at 8:15 p.m. (immediately following the Freeport Middle School sports awards), and on June 9 at the Freeport Community Library from 7-8:30 p.m.

Amy Anderson can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or aanderson@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @amy_k_anderson.

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