A tarp covers the PHS baseball field last spring in an attempt to protect it from wet weather. (File photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

An effort to upgrade the high school’s baseball and softball fields has started to take shape with the Philomath School Board giving the thumbs up to a group that wants to start raising money to install turf.

Philomath High School baseball coach Levi Webber took board members through a presentation on Thursday night that provided detailed insights into the need, design and fundraising strategies to take an idea that’s been around for a few years to the next level.

“Our hope tonight in coming in here with this is we just get your blessing to go out and make this project a reality,” Webber said. “I think we have enough momentum, enough community support, enough people around that would like to see this happen, enough people that would really benefit from this, so we can make it a viable thing and give our student athletes and community’s kids a great place to be.”

Webber said that the original plan was to start raising money for the upgrades in 2020 but the pandemic derailed those efforts. Webber, former softball coach Erik Remington and several people from around the community had been working together on the project and were actually only a few weeks away from making a presentation to the School Board when COVID-19 started shutting things down.

Webber said the field improvements would not only benefit the high school programs but the community as a whole.

“The one thing this will do is it’ll allow a bunch more use of our facilities rather than just during the high school season but throughout the summertime, throughout the winters,” Webber said. “Shoot, with the baseball field being right outside the gym, they can take classes out there and do some stuff, so there’s a lot of opportunity for that.”

Webber hopes to see the project break ground in about 16 months with the upgrade work to begin in June 2024. It would be ready for use by the baseball and softball teams in the spring of 2025.

The biggest hurdle to the project comes down to cost. Based on estimates that Webber put together a week before the meeting, the price tag on the baseball and softball field upgrades comes in at $599,335. But it’s a number that should include an asterisk.

“That’s if we just went out and paid market value and we’re not planning to do that because we have a pretty awesome community that has some pretty good resources that can help us out with a lot of these costs,” Webber said about the large dollar amount. “But if you’re going to go out and pay somebody to do it and just sit back, that’s what the cost would be.”

An overhead view of the Philomath High softball field. (File photo by Logan Hannigan-Downs/Philomath News)

Webber recommended the following upgrades:

• Turf infields for the baseball and softball fields, which would require subgrading work.

• Moving the baseball team’s home and visitor bullpens further away from the dugouts adjacent to the left- and right-field vicinities. The area where the current bullpens are situated would be reworked into spectator berms for fans watching games.

• Adding bullpens with fencing for the home and visiting teams on the softball field.

• New and additional fencing and gates around most of the baseball field.

• Adding outfield drainage on the varsity baseball and junior varsity softball fields.

• Building a new visitor team’s dugout and storage shed.

• Installing a new softball field scoreboard.

Webber and Tony Matta, athletic director and assistant principal at PHS, cited several examples of how the turf fields would benefit the programs. For starters, Matta said the turf fields would have a positive impact on the school district’s transportation costs in that the Warriors would be able to play more games at home.

Home rainouts are occasionally moved to another school’s field so games can be played and home games are rarely scheduled in March and early April. For example, nonleague schedules this spring for baseball and softball combined show 13 of 17 games to be played on the road.

Providing details on some of the upgrades, Webber described how the baseball field’s outfield drainage was impacted by a bike-pedestrian path that was installed in the 2010s.

Although Webber said it’s a great path, it “created a dam for the natural drainage that we had, the surface drainage. … It’s created chaos in our outfield early in the season, so we don’t get the run-off like we used to into the wetlands area over by the park.”

In addition, Webber estimated the baseball field’s fencing at 30 to 40 years old. Sign boards have been hanging on large portions of the fence for years and he said a lot of the concrete base is starting to fail, leading to a feature that is “in dire need of repair.”

The project would not include any changes to the baseball field’s grandstands.

A glaring shortcoming at the softball field can be seen during games with the scoreboard, which has been needing replacement or repairs for about the last 10 years now, Webber said.

Webber said the project would “get something a little bigger and better, similar to what we have on the baseball field to even things out, tidy up their space a little bit.” The cost estimates place the price tag at $40,000 alone for the scoreboard.

Philomath’s Mia Bennett makes a catch during the 2021 season with the softball field’s scoreboard seen in the background. (File photo by Logan Hannigan-Downs/Philomath News)

The visitor’s softball dugout has several issues, including that it sits below grade and has standing water problems along with a low roof with exposed nails. In addition, a storage shed would also be added to the outfield side of the visitor’s dugout.

Webber explained a plan to use excavated dirt from the varsity fields and haul it over to be used on the junior varsity softball field to raise the outfield’s elevation. Webber said the JV field is “one of the lowest points on campus, so water pools up right there and it’s not playable until June, if they’re lucky.”

Broken down, the turf, infill and installation costs alone add up to $227,250 with another $155,225 for the subgrading work that would be required. That includes excavation, the rock that would go in and drainage materials.

At $104,010, another significant cost would be fixing the outfield drainage issue with most of those dollars going to excavation and the rock for pipe and backfill.

Webber outlined a fundraising plan that includes applying for grants, partnering with local businesses, incorporating community stakeholders, utilizing in-kind donations, holding fundraisers and crowdsourcing.

With a campaign entitled, “Rolling Out the Carpet,” the organizers have come up with various levels connected to tax-deductible donation amounts. The levels range from $20 to $10,000-plus with different methods for recognizing the contributions.

Said Matta, “The thing I’ve noticed in my five years here is that people are really generous when it comes to the schools and they want to do what’s best for kids.”

Webber asked the School Board if there would be a commitment from the district to make funding available for maintenance. Currently, there is about $10,000 budgeted for field maintenance. The hope would be for that annual number to be increased to $15,000 to $20,000 as dollars that could be saved for the day when the turf needs to be replaced in 10 to 15 years.

“The thing a lot of people don’t realize when you’re doing a turf field is that it’s not a permanent thing,” Webber said. “It’s going to have to be replaced down the line … It won’t cover the whole cost of the thing but hopefully it’ll knock out a good chunk of that.”

The idea behind the budgetary request would be so the group does not have to return to significant fundraising mode in the future.

“This group of guys, some of the people that really are committed to this project, don’t want to do this again 10 years from now,” Matta said. “They want to be able to do this once and be able to have a commitment from the district.”

PHS baseball coach Levi Webber hopes to see the project begin in June 2024. (File photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

That’s not to say there wouldn’t be periodic maintenance. For example, repairs to high-traffic areas like the batter’s box and pitcher’s mound would be needed sooner, but Webber described that as a minor expense that could be covered by the program’s fundraising already in place. In fact, leftover turf from the initial install could be stored for later use.

The reactions from the School Board were mostly positive, although Erin Gudge did voice a perspective of concern based on the $600,000 project cost.

“I guess I’ll just say it’s about 10 times the amount of money that we spend on some of our curriculum for an entire school for a subject and I know you’re not asking the board to fund that, but I wouldn’t feel good about myself if I didn’t raise a concern about just how much money that is,” Gudge said.

“And additionally, I think it would be good if we as part of our long-term facilities planning committee, if we could have an idea of these sort of projects as well as other things so that when we are doing large fundraising through the community, then we have an idea of how many different things we’re fundraising for,” she added. “How many times are we going to the well of these incredibly generous and wonderful community partners and asking them to keep giving us money for different projects?”

Matta said those types of concerns with community involvement to raise money are considered and added that various programs are always going to be fundraising for the things that they want.

Board member Christopher McMorran said that although he understands Gudge’s point, he had no problem with the group’s plans.

“I guess, as far as I’m concerned, if this is not taxpayer money, go wild and get us the money,” he said. “My concern on this board is what we spend the people’s money on and we are not a part of this figure as far as you’ve told us.”

Board chair Rick Wells made the point that there is a financial ask as it relates to an increased commitment in the annual budget to go toward savings for the eventual turf replacement.

During the conversation with the board, Webber mentioned Ryan Starwalt, a PHS graduate who founded Northwest Sports Turf Solutions and lives in the immediate vicinity. Starwalt established the company after going through the same type of situation at Crescent Valley High School.

Coming out of that experience, Northwest Sports Turf Solutions on its website writes, “The lessons learned and the passion to help other programs inspired us to start a company to help get them the fields they need. Instead of being overwhelmed by maintenance and rainouts, your coaches will get to spend time teaching the beautiful game of baseball and softball that we all love so much.”

Brad Fuqua

Brad Fuqua, Philomath News

Brad Fuqua has covered the Philomath area since 2014 as the editor of the now-closed Philomath Express and currently as publisher/editor of the Philomath News. He has worked as a professional journalist since 1988 at daily and weekly newspapers in Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, Arizona, Montana and Oregon.