Fairfield group looks to improve town's athletic fields

Photo of Katrina Koerting

FAIRFIELD — Some town athletic fields are so flooded after it rains that they’re unusable for days. Others have large holes that pose injury risks to the young athletes who compete on them, and some others have severe slopes.

But these situations may not last much longer if a group of residents has its way.

The Fairfield Athletic Foundation, a group which formed earlier this year, is pushing for three renovation projects at Sullivan Field, Roger Ludlowe Middle School and the Fairfield Warde complex. The biggest component would be replacing the grass fields with artificial turf.

“It’s more than just, ‘let’s turf the town,’” said Keith Markey, one of the foundation’s board members, adding it would create fair and equitable opportunities for all of the teams in town and the 14,000 or so Fairfield athletes who use them.

He said the projects would help with the bottleneck that happens when there is inclement weather and teams are left scrambling for practice and game space. Tomlinson Middle School’s turf field is the only town field that doesn’t close in inclement weather.

The new turf fields would complement the existing natural fields that are designed well and don’t present challenges after it rains. The proposed renovations focus more on the fields that become “ponds” after rain and on alleviating demand on the current limited space. Teams also have to be careful about using grass fields after it rains because it could damage the field.

“We live in New England,” Markey said. “We’re going to see rain, we’re going to see snow.”

The Roger Ludlowe project would create a multi-sport turf complex in the center of town, near the turf fields already at Ludlowe High School and Tomlinson Middle School.

The Sullivan project would focus on two fields, which the foundation said are currently in use every day of the week due to the their size and ability to hold multiple events. The current usage allows for very little downtime for the grass to recover in between events and so are are in “very bad shape” at the end of each season, Markey said.

The Fairfield Warde project would create a turf complex and expand what is already there by remediating and leveling the grassy area around the existing fields. The Warde campus has about 415,000 square feet of space, which could accommodate an athletic complex and so the foundation has asked AstroTurf Corporation to put together some ideas for a complex.

All three projects are expected to cost about $5.5 million, Markey said, adding the Warde project might take a bit longer due to the scope of the project and because it is a Board of Education property.

The other two are owned by Parks and Recreation and could be done right away.

Adding turf fields could help make the town attractive for youth tournaments and generate revenue for the town and surrounding businesses. The foundation said switching to turf would also save money since the current maintenance costs to cut, line and maintain Sullivan Field are more than $70,000 each year.

Markey said the effort largely came about as teams traveled to other towns for competitions. He said seeing athletic fields in other towns, including those less affluent than Fairfield, really highlighted the deficiencies in Fairfield.

“It was mind blowing to see how beautiful they were,” he said. “We came together and realized we needed to do something.”

In some cases, another town’s team arrived only to discover the Fairfield field was unplayable and so it had to be moved to another location. At other times, officials tried to relocate games to the opponent’s home field, which was in better condition.

Markey said the situation not only reflects poorly on Fairfield, but deprives the town’s children and teens of opportunities to succeed. He said these athletes want to play and the town should be helping them succeed.

The foundation was formed to help raise awareness about the fields’ condition. Markey said they’re looking to approach the whole process collaboratively and work alongside the town and all of the stakeholders.

“We know the only way we’re going to do this is together,” he said.

First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick said she and the town’s parks and recreation director met with the foundation several months ago to hear their proposals. She said she supported them, but that the projects would have to come before the town bodies as part of the capital budgeting process, which begins with a joint meeting in October.

The meeting, which is hosted by the Board of Finance, includes presentations from the department heads, schools and other groups about their proposed capital projects, the need for them and the potential costs. The selected projects would become part of the town’s capital list, which is usually covered by bonding.

She said that multi-year list is currently at $300 million or so, though some of those projects are being removed and covered using money from the American Rescue Plan.

If it does advance, the fields are a mix of school or parks and recreation ownership, though Kupchick said the money for them “all comes from the same pot.”

Kupchick said she understood the group’s concerns and challenges with the current fields, including having to reschedule games.

“I think it’s important to a certain extent,” Kupchick said.

She cautioned that this has to be balanced with all of the other needs in town, the costs and the town’s ability to pay so that its debt level doesn’t affect the high bond rating, which is used to help borrow money at lower interest rates.

“I support them but it’s got to be thrown into the pot with all of the other needs,” she said, adding she told them it would have to be a public/private partnership.

Kupchick advised the group to begin fundraising and come to the finance board with money already committed.

“It shows the enthusiasm and desire to have it,” she said.

Markey said that enthusiasm is there.

The group started an online petition a couple of months ago calling on officials to improve the fields and highlighting a number of issues, including ditches, severe slopes, patches of bare dirt instead of grass and a lack of equipment that neighboring towns have, such as lights and scoreboards. That petition has since gotten more than 2,000 signatures.

He said the foundation believes it can bring $1.5 million to $1.7 million to the table based on the people who are already part of the effort.

The group is also in the process of becoming a registered non-profit organization so it can raise funds on behalf of the town for the work.

“It’s really making sure our elected officials are in line with us,” Markey said. “We’re not trying to take away from other important needs. It’s just getting into the waterfall plan because athletic infrastructure is just as important.”