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Time for new stadium?

"It doesn't take an expert to see problems with Oak Harbor's Memorial Stadium. The bleacher seats are old, weather-beaten and rotted in places; the locker rooms are sparse, with paint sluffing off the deteriorating concrete walls; the grass field has been chopped and divoted by more than its share of cleats and quick turns; and the grandstand steps bounce and bow disconcertingly under excited spectators.But it's nothing that $7.9 million dollars won't fix.That's the estimated cost of replacing the 50-year-old Whidbey Avenue stadium with a new sports facility located at Oak Harbor High School. The new stadium will feature covered seating, an artificial playing surface, better lighting, more parking and will be safer and accessible for everyone.Proponents say a new stadium is long overdue and insist that every year the district waits, the replacement cost gets more expensive. They add that the current stadium is a potential safety hazard and a limitation to not only school sports but to other community events as well.Opponents have been less vocal but key objections revolve around the proposed placement of the new facility; its overall importance with regards to education; and its cost, which will add 24 cents per $1,000 of valuation onto local property taxes. That amounts to $36 per year on a $150,000 home.Others wonder if this is really the right time for the district to be asking for more money, especially since the stadium shares the ballot with two other money issues - a 70 cents per $1,000 maintenance and operations levy and a 7 cents per $1,000 hot lunch program levy.But Michael Waller, of the Oak Harbor High School Booster Club, said the need for a new stadium should not come as a surprise to local taxpayers.In the early 1970s it was recognized that there was a need for it. Thirty years later nothing has changed, he said. It's time to do something.WELL WORNThough Memorial Field may have changed little in its half century, the school district and the demands on the field have changed considerably. When the field was first built for baseball, Oak Harbor High School was classified as a 1A school with about 400 students. Today, the school population has climbed to around 1,800, which places it among 4A schools. At the same time, the variety of sports and the number of students participating has also increased. The stadium was later converted to a football field but only a handful of games were played there during the year. Now, with games and practices for both varsity and junior varsity football as well as boys and girls soccer, the field hosts between 40 to 60 events between September and May each year.It gets torn up pretty good, said Mike Thornton, who played football and soccer on the field as a student during the late 1980s and now works in grounds maintenance for the district. Luckily we haven't run into a water problem this year.The field has been plagued with poor drainage for years and during wet winters water will flood certain parts of the playing surface, said Thornton. The district has had to cancel some events, including the popular powderpuff football game in 1999, because of poor field conditions. These days, Thornton said he's still trying to get grass to grow back in patches along the sidelines where players stood during football season. Fellow groundskeeper Steve Newman pointed out another problem with the field.There's a chain link fence too close to the back of the south end zone, he said. A player running through that end zone has only about four or five feet of clearance before coming face-to-face with the metal fence. Memorial Stadium is barely big enough for soccer, too, because when it was built the now-popular sport wasn't played by high schools. Soccer fields are wider than football fields, so in order to place a full-size playing surface at the current site, sidelines have to be pushed tightly to the grandstands. It tends to put fans right on top of the players and coaches. In most stadiums a track provides a buffer zone.Nevertheless, Newman and Thornton are pleased with the way they've been able to keep the field playable despite the problems, and Thornton said that from a player's perspective it can be a decent field for a game.Spectators can't always say the same. Memorial Field has the only uncovered grandstand in the conference, leaving fans exposed to the wind and rain. Sun also presents a problem. Because the stands face westward, the crowd often has to look directly into the sunset. An architectural and engineering study done in 1997 also pointed out significant deficiencies with the grandstand's structural supports, handrails, press box, restrooms and food-handling areas.Gary Hanson, the district's maintenance and grounds director, said structural steel experts have since inspected the grandstand superstructure to make sure it will hold up, but he added that the stands do not meet current safety codes.It's very easy for a child to slip through, he said, referring to the gaps between seats and footrests. Modern grandstand seating includes seat backs and other protections to guard against such mishaps.HOME FIELD ADVANTAGESWaller said that if safety was the only problem, the district could upgrade the current stadium for less money than it takes to build a new facility. But he said there are several other reasons to relocate and do it correctly. For one thing, he noted that the March bond issue will also pay for two new baseball fields, a new track, a soccer field, a practice field and resurfacing of the high school tennis courts - all of which have been needed for some time.He said the high school's current baseball field ranks with Memorial Stadium as the worst in the conference. It is also the only full-size baseball field in the city, so it hosts American Legion summer teams and adult league games as well as high school contests. As a result, it gets very beat up during the season, said Waller.The new proposal would create a better full-size baseball field and a shorter field nearby that will work for practices, Babe Ruth League, middle schools and other younger teams.Besides school athletic events, Waller said the stadium itself could be used by the school's marching band, youth leagues, festivals, shows, community events and possibly high school graduation ceremonies.We want this to be a true community facility. Whenever the school district isn't using it, other groups can use it, he said. It's more than a football field. We have all these other needs that can be met by it.The new stadium could also provide a business boost to the community, said Waller. Because of the inadequacies of Oak Harbor's current stadium, the district cannot host certain conference playoff games and regional tournaments in sports like soccer and track. Such events could bring several teams and their families to the city for overnight stays. Those people will likely eat and shop while they're here.QUESTIONS REMAINWhy move the stadium to the high school? If it has to be rebuilt why not do it at its current, historic site? That's one of the questions posed by those unsure or opposed to the stadium issue. The simple answer, say proponents, is space. There's not enough of it at the current site to do what needs to be done - particularly when it comes to parking. A 3,000-spectator stadium requires more than 700 parking spaces. Some have suggested that the district relocate the neighboring school bus barn to the high school to free up more space at the current site, but it still wouldn't be enough. Nor would it solve the problems with the other fields that are now at the high school.As far as honoring history, Waller noted that the district originally planned to put the football field at the high school but could not because of cost. In addition, he recalled, Memorial Stadium is historically a baseball, not a football field - something it could become again if the new stadium is approved.Talk about tradition, he said.A 25-member stadium review committee that studied the issue for five months in 1998 unanimously concluded that the stadium should be placed at the high school, said Waller.Another concern expressed by opponents is that the artificial playing surface proposed for the new stadium could lead to more player injuries. Oak Harbor School District Athletic Director Jeff Stone acknowledged that the original Astroturf many people are familiar with was hard, unforgiving and did lead to injuries. But the latest surfaces, known as FieldTurf, are very good and are praised by both players and coaches. It plays like true grass, he said. FieldTurf is the same surface recently installed at the University of Washington's Husky Stadium.As far as overall cost of the project, Waller said the price of $7.9 million is appropriate to build a good, but not the best, sports facility.It doesn't need to be the best. We just need it to be adequate. Every other school in our conference has upgraded their facilities at least once and sometimes twice, he said. It was supposed to be at the high school years ago. It's about time we finish this project.Voters will get their chance to either agree or disagree on March 13.----------------Here's how the cost estimates for a new Oak Harbor sports facility break downStadium and related site work: $3,330,000Synthetic turf field and track: $1,255,450New main baseball field and secondary field: $633,000Resurface existing tennis courts: $27,000Practice soccer and football field: $128,500Parking, dainage and landscaping: $432,500Sales tax, permits and design work: $1,802,553Contingency: $290,397Total estimate of project costs: $7,899,400Amount of bond: $7,900,000Bond period: 12 yearsAverage interest rate: 5.9 percentTax rate increase: 24 cents per $1,000 of valuationCost on a $100,000 home: $24 per yearCost on a $150,000 home: $36 per yearCost on a $200,000 home: $48 per year-------------------Want to learn more about the stadium or the other two school measures on the March 13 ballot?The Oak Harbor School District is holding a pair of issue information nights on Feb. 6 and 7. Backers of the stadium proposal, the maintenance and operations levy and the hot lunch program levy will make presentations and answer questions. Speakers include Mike Waller of the Booster Club, district athletic director Jeff Stone and superintendent Rick Schulte, school board members, teachers, community leaders and students.The Feb. 6 forum will be held at Parker Hall on the Oak Harbor High School campus beginning at 7 p.m.. The Feb. 7 program will at Hillcrest Elementary, also at 7 p.m. "

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