Amherst committee says track project can forge ahead, as booster organization continues fundraising

  • The Amherst Regional High School varsity athletic field and six-lane track, with some repair patches visible in lane four. Photographed on Tuesday, May 3, 2022. gazette file photo

Staff Writer
Friday, January 20, 2023

AMHERST — A $4.74 million project to rebuild and reorient the track at the Amherst Regional High School, installing a synthetic turf playing field in its interior, can move forward, even though community fundraising is short of the amount needed to complete the most expensive plan.

The Amherst Regional School Committee voted 6-2 on Jan. 12 to direct Superintendent Michael Morris to pursue the eight-lane track and artificial turf field, with an understanding that there is close to the $2.2 million in community funds necessary from a combination of sources, including $957,500 from Amherst’s Community Preservation Act account, $900,000 in free cash from Amherst and $11,000 from Pelham’s CPA account.

But the vote, with Amherst representatives Peter Demling, Ben Herrington, Allison McDonald and Irv Rhodes voting in favor, along with Pelham representative Sarahbess Kenney and Leverett representative Craig Cohen, came after members of the Amherst Hurricane Boosters organization, charged with fundraising through its Transformative Uses for Regional Fields Capital Campaign, informed the committee that they have not yet reached a $331,000 goal.

Demling said what has been raised, though, is near enough to match the $1.5 million in capital borrowing costs the towns are already committed to that would replace the track built in 1999 and a field that is considered to be in poor condition.

“In my judgment, the hard work and the conservative estimates and the attestations by the Boosters leadership is the suitable assurance that I need that funds are available,” Demling said.

Amherst representative Jennifer Shiao and Pelham representative Margaret Stancer voted against the project, preferring an option about $700,000 cheaper that would include a grass interior field. Shutesbury representative Steve Sullivan was absent.

Boosters President Mary Klaes provided details about the work that has led to $81,248 in hand from donors and a total of $274,858 when including what is promised and through signed agreements.

“We’re very close to the $331,000,” Klaes said.

In addition, in-kind work that might be contributed could range from $200,000 to $800,000 in value.

“Congratulations on your Herculean effort of fundraising. It’s pretty amazing,” Demling said.

McDonald noted that about $55,000 still needs to be raised, observing that the Boosters had an original Jan. 16 deadline to complete fundraising, and there is more time before any contracts have to be signed by Morris.

“I feel 100 percent confident that that $55,000 can and will be raised, whether it’s cash or in-kind donations, just based on the multiple, multiple things that are expected,” McDonald said.

Boosters Vice President Angela Mills said she anticipates more money will come in over the next several months as the project gets underway.

“We have many asks that are out there,” Mills said, adding that the Boosters was fundraising in a challenging economic environment, and also wanted to be respectful to the capital campaign underway for the Jones Library project.

Doug Slaughter, the school’s finance chief, said that legal counsel has assured him that the funding plan, as presented, is acceptable.

Shiao, though, expressed discomfort in the plan, and recommended pursuing a less expensive option with a grass interior field, though that proposal only garnered the support of herself and Stancer.

“They cannot attest that they have received and committed donations,” Shiao said of the Boosters.

“We should live within our means and embark on a project that we can afford,” Shiao said.

While the concerns about toxic PFAS chemicals used in artificial turf came up in written public comments provided in advance of the meeting, and the Board of Health in Amherst advised against using artificial turf, the committee’s vote didn’t factor in the surface of the playing field. The Boosters also were fundraising for what was termed an “eco-friendly, player friendly” surface.

After the vote, Klaes said her organization would remain dedicated to continue raising money for the project.

“We’re energized and want to follow through with what we’ve committed to,” Klaes said. “We will do our very best and come back with you with what we’ve raised by Jan. 16.”

The only who resident who spoke after the vote was Maria Kopicki, who said the committee should do hard thinking about allowing in-kind donations and attestations to supplement real money.

Kopicki said she worries that the project will be delayed because Morris won’t have the money necessary.

“You have completely abandoned your fiscal responsibility here,” Kopicki said.