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New Amherst Regional track plan inches forward, but questions loom

  • 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.

  • The Amherst Regional High School varsity athletic field and six-lane track. Photographed on Tuesday, May 3, 2022.

  • 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.



Staff Writer
Monday, May 09, 2022

AMHERST — A project to rebuild Amherst Regional High School’s aging track can move forward, even though town and school officials likely won’t know until early next year whether the final product will include reorienting the track and replacing its deteriorating interior field with an artificial turf surface.

Despite worries from some councilors about what happens should the school district come up short in getting $3.2 million from other funding sources to complete the $4.74 million preferred plan, the Amherst Town Council Monday voted overwhelmingly in favor of a $1.5 million borrowing request from the Amherst Regional School Committee.

“A vote no gets us absolutely nothing except an ongoing, completely unusable track,” said Council President Lynn Griesemer, who joined nine of her colleagues in the 10-1 affirmative vote.

At Large Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke voted against the borrowing plan, and District 3 Dorothy Pam abstained from the vote. District 4 Councilor Anika Lopes was absent.

Hanneke said her no vote was not against the project, but rather was to express concern about what should happen if the necessary funds for the full-scale rebuilding and replacement of the track and field not be available by mid-January 2023.

That date is when Superintendent Michael Morris hopes to go out to bid for a contractor to do the work, whether that work be only replacing the track, last constructed in 1999, or whether it also includes reorienting the track and putting down an artificial turf playing surface inside it.

The best-case scenario would rely on successful fundraising by the Hurricane Boosters, grants, and use of municipal Community Preservation Act accounts and federal American Rescue Plan Act money.

Short of that, Hanneke said the council’s vote might mean only the track gets done, the preferred master plan for the site is not accomplished and a generation of athletes are hindered.

“I don’t support the way the School Committee has gone about this,” Hanneke said, adding that she doesn’t have confidence that the full-scale project will ever come to fruition.

While District 5 Councilor Ana Devlin Gauthier said she sympathizes with Hanneke’s concern, the council, like the School Committee, is betting that other funding will come through.

At Large Councilor Andy Steinberg said he was uncomfortable in voting no because that would mean Amherst was nixing the project on behalf of all four regional towns, including Pelham, Shutesbury and Leverett.

In her abstention, Pam said she found it strange to vote for a set amount when the preferred project cost is significantly higher. Pam called the approach the committee foisted on the Town Council as “too cute”

In bringing a spending plan significantly less than what is needed, Morris said a strategic decision was made, based on input from representatives of the smaller communities at a “four towns meeting” over the winter. They were clear, he said, that a larger project was not affordable using only tax dollars.

Morris added that School Committee members felt it was not wise to bring a project forward that might get voted down in one of the smaller towns.

While he acknowledged the uncertainty this causes, Morris noted that the smaller towns appear to be comfortable with the plan. In Leverett, the matter was not brought to Town Meeting on April 30, meaning that it gets approved there by default. Pelham’s Town Meeting on May 14 is also not expected to consider the matter, while Shutesbury’s session on May 21 falls outside the 60-day period in which it could reject the project.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.