Freeport turf field proponents get more time to raise money

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FREEPORT — An independent committee says it can raise at least $2 million of the $3.2 million needed to pay for artificial turf fields at Freeport High School.

As a result, the School Board extended the committee’s fundraising deadline.

Freeport residents Fred Palmer and John Paterson, who created the Tri-Town Track and Field Committee last year, reported their progress to the Regional School Unit 5 Board of Directors Jan. 13. In addition to turf fields, the money would also be used to build an eight-lane running track.

Palmer and Paterson have assembled a committee of 15-20 volunteers who have been working on a capital campaign to replace the high school’s grass athletic fields with artificial turf. According to the men, $2 million has been raised or pledged.

The committee has members from all three RSU 5 towns – Freeport, Durham, and Pownal – and includes state Rep. Sara Gideon, Freeport Town Councilor Sarah Tracy, former RSU 5 board Chairman Nelson Larkins, and Olympic gold medalist Joan Benoit Samuelson.

The school’s two fields, plus a smaller “half field,” are expected to be repaired as part of the high school renovation project. A $14.6 million bond to renovate the high school was approved by voters in November 2013 and, in October 2015, the RSU 5 board accepted a bid of around $10.7 million from Sheridan Corp., a Portland-based commercial construction company.

In that bid, $600,000 was allotted for the field repair work. Palmer and Paterson in June, though, had asked the board if they could raise the money to create turf fields instead, and the board agreed. On Jan. 13 the two said they consider the $600,000 allocation part of the $2 million they’ve raised; the RSU will give them that amount if they raise the rest.

Sheridan Corp. has agreed to keep that portion of its bid on hold until Jan. 31, which is why Palmer and Paterson provided an update last week.

The RSU 5 board on Jan. 13 decided it will now ask Sheridan Corp. to put its bid on hold until May, since Palmer and Paterson said they will have all the money raised by June. Superintendent Ed McDonough said if they don’t raise the money, the School Department will move forward with the original plan for grass fields.

According to McDonough, the RSU 5 board on Jan. 27 will report whether Sheridan Corp. will again agree to lock in the bid. If the contractor declines, the board will need to decide whether they would be willing to likely pay more for the work if the funds aren’t raised for turf fields. McDonough said the cost to repair the grass field would probably go up by May if the bid isn’t locked in.

If the money is raised for the turf field, McDonough said it will need to be approved by voters since it wasn’t what they approved in the November 2013 referendum.

Over the coming months the RSU 5 board is expected to discuss the positives and negatives associated with turf fields. McDonough said some community members have concerns about turf being linked to cancer in athletes.

The Tri-Town Track and Field Committee has been researching these claims, McDonough said, and will bring its findings to the RSU 5 board. At the Jan. 13 meeting, Palmer and Paterson said turf is durable and can last  up to 10 years without needing repair or replacement.

Paterson on Tuesday said he and Palmer are passionate about the project because they “really believe in public education.”

He said students who participate in athletics perform better academically and have higher grade point averages. He said the high school has a “second-rate athletic facility,” and upgrading it would lead to increased participation in athletics.

Kate Gardner can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or kgardner@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @katevgardner.

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I'm a reporter for The Forecaster covering Freeport, Yarmouth, Chebeague Island, and Cape Elizabeth. I'm from a small town in NH no one's ever heard of. When not reporting, I can be found eating pasta and reading books, often at the same time.