Maintaining Quality Athletic Fields on Any Budget | Athletic Business

Maintaining Quality Athletic Fields on Any Budget

[Photo courtesy of Legacy Fields]
[Photo courtesy of Legacy Fields]

It's a common theme across the country: youth sports organizations want more fields or more field time. Most don't have the funding to buy land and build their own fields, and municipal parks and recreation departments often have space but can't afford the cost of building or maintaining fields in the long run.

Thus, in recent years, more municipal programs have enlisted the help of the sports organizations using their fields to take on some of the costs and responsibilities of building and maintenance. "With the recession, a number of departments had to make cuts," says Rob Slezak, recreation director in Vero Beach, Fla. "We have a number of private groups who are utilizing our fields, and we're paying for it, so as part of our adjustment, we asked them — specifically the Little League organizations — to pick up our utility bills for the fields they use and also to maintain the fields."

Faced with the options of pitching in to keep the fields usable or losing them altogether, four leagues opted to enter lease agreements with the city. "The savings to our department wound up being about $30,000 a year, which is almost a full-time staff member," Slezak says.

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Up the coast in Arlington, Va., the department of parks and recreation utilizes an Adopt-a-Field program to help with the maintenance of the 109 athletic fields under its watch, emphasizing the role of field users and volunteers in supplementing the work done by the department. "There are probably folks within those organizations who would take exception to that statement and feel they do the primary maintenance," says Jeff Winkle, athletic field maintenance manager with the department of parks and recreation. "One of my main objectives when I was hired into this position was to build relationships with our user groups and do a better job managing their expectations."

Arrangements for field maintenance and use take different forms depending on what works best for the stakeholders. Here's a look at three different approaches taken by different programs:

Vero Beach, Fla.: Pass the bucks
Because the Vero Beach Recreation Department does not run any of its own recreation programming on the fields it manages, passing responsibility of their maintenance to those groups using the fields was an uncomplicated process. "They take care of the fields, pay the utility bill and that's it," Slezak says. "The autonomy was a big deal to them."

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The volunteer caretakers bring their own equipment, utilize their own storage sheds and overall operate with minimal involvement from the recreation department. In fact, Slezak says the fields are in better condition than they were when under the recreation department's care. "There's the pride factor," Slezak says. "They feel like it's their field and they take ownership of it."

There was some initial pushback about whether the fields would be open to the public, but relationships with youth organizations have been good. "We've had a good rapport, and the leagues can use the fields whenever they want to use them," Slezak says. "When people do call us and ask to use the fields, we refer them to the group in charge of the field and they usually get it."

Gunston baseball diamond [Photo courtesy of Arlington County Department of Parks and Recreation]Gunston baseball diamond [Photo courtesy of Arlington County Department of Parks and Recreation]

Arlington, Va.: Surrogate caretakers
The Department of Parks and Recreation in Arlington, Va., is responsible for the management and care of 109 athletic fields, including 40 owned by the public school system. "The school system allows us to program those fields when school activities are not on them, and in exchange we maintain them," Winkler says. Users range from parks and recreation programs and youth organizations to adult leagues and private rental groups. The school district pays a portion of the maintenance costs for its fields, but asking each of these groups to take responsibility for the maintenance of their fields would be a logistics nightmare. Instead, the Arlington DPR is responsible for setting and maintaining the standards for all fields.

This system doesn't preclude the user groups from helping out with the maintenance where they're able. "Our Adopt-A-Field participants and the other volunteers they recruit to help on their fields do a great job understanding their role in the process," Winkler says. "For example, our crews work early morning through early afternoon and often cannot do enough in that time to make the fields playable after inclement weather. I communicate with the volunteer coordinators throughout the day to identify fields that could be playable with volunteer efforts in the afternoon. Over the past two years, fields that were typically closed the day after or even two days after inclement weather have been made playable sooner."

RELATED: When to Keep Field Maintenance In-House and When to Hire a Pro

Wet fields pose the greatest maintenance issue for Arlington's athletic fields, Winkler says, both in the form of groups not waiting for the fields to adequately dry or applying too much drying agent to hasten the process. The parks department offers field clinics and educational opportunities to help groups understand maintenance best practices, and makes clear its expectations for users before play begins. "We have a written agreement that spells out what we expect of volunteers and, conversely, what they can expect from the DPR's athletic field maintenance unit," Winkler says. "These expectations are also relayed to our user groups through their leadership each season."

The expectations include basic pre- and post-game field care, as well as supplemental tasks, such as pulling weeds and lining fields. Failure to abide by expectations results in reduced field access.

Complaints can go both ways, of course. All of the user groups have a county liaison. "The liaison will then follow up with the appropriate county staff to address the issue and respond to the organization's representative," Winkler says. "This process ensures streamlined communication so that requests and complaints can be addressed as efficiently as possible."

[Photo courtesy of Arlington County Department of Parks and Recreation][Photo courtesy of Arlington County Department of Parks and Recreation]

Tracy, Calif.: Community investment
Across the country in Tracy, Calif., the city's vision for its Legacy Field Complex was built around a lease-agreement model that held users responsible for maintaining the fields. In 2012, the city signed four lease agreements with local sports organizations to develop fields — the city would invest $12 million in the infrastructure and basic amenities, but the youth groups would be responsible for building and maintaining the actual fields.

However, the leagues found out that raising millions of dollars for athletic fields was not as easy as they had anticipated, and of the four organizations, only the Little League had managed to raise enough money to build any fields — raising $400,000 to build two. "The council decided to step in," says Brian MacDonald, a management analyst with the city's public works department in charge of overseeing the fields. With an additional $5.7 million, the city built three more baseball fields on the Little League's initial site, as well as four additional diamonds and the eight planned soccer fields.

The outlay of funds also required a rethinking of the initially planned public-private partnerships, MacDonald says. "We went to all the leagues and asked who was interested in doing a long-term lease agreement to help pay us back, and who's interested in simply renting."

Having already built two of its fields, the Little League opted to enter an exclusive lease agreement, while the other initial partners decided their rental role was more apt. "That's the bread and butter of all of this," MacDonald says. "Tracy Little League said, as part of the exclusive lease agreement, we're offering the community the benefit of not having to operate and maintain that part of the facility."

Though the Little League has exclusive use, it does not have carte blanche when it comes to maintenance. The lease agreement with the city includes a very detailed list of maintenance expectations, developed by MacDonald and his director, a certified sports field manager. "We've invested millions of dollars in these fields. We need to make sure the fields are maintained to the city's standards," he says, noting that the Little League's portion represents slightly more than 20 acres of the 72-acre complex. "I'm the league liaison, so I handle communications with them. For example, they recently had some weeds in their infield, so I let them know to get them cleaned up, and they said they'd get out there on the weekend."

The agreement includes time frames in which repairs must be made — 48 hours for irrigation-related issues and 10 calendar days for less-serious concerns. "We do give some outs if they can't fix the irrigation within 48 hours," MacDonald says. "We're more concerned if it's in the middle of summer and we have a heat wave. We don't want fields to go without water for too long."

The city also requires a $5,000 retainer for a contracted maintenance company in the event of an emergency, sparked by a previous incident in which MacDonald had noticed a water leak at one of the fields and been unable to reach anyone with the Little League. "It was the middle of summer and everyone was on vacation," he says. "I had to call one of our crews out to come take care of it, and we just billed them for our time and materials. Going forward, we said we wanted them to have a contractor on retainer."

Insights from a professional

Whether a volunteer caretaker of a practice field or director of a multi-acre complex, there's always something to learn.

In Cary, N.C., a 150-acre multi-use facility — overseen by the Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources Department — includes everything from regulation soccer fields up to a professional training field and a 10,000-seat stadium. The fields are used for practices, games and tournaments by all levels, including youth soccer organizations, middle and high schools, NCAA programs and even the U.S. men's and women's national soccer teams. We asked Keith Jenkins, CPRP, sports venue coordinator for Cary's WakeMed Soccer Park, for some tips on maintaining fields.

[Photo courtesy of Cary’s WakeMed Soccer Park][Photo courtesy of Cary’s WakeMed Soccer Park]

1. Control traffic
"One of our primary field-use guidelines is that we limit the number of players on the field at one time to approximately 50 for training. This ensures that a group doesn't overload the field with too many players. If groups aren't following this guideline, we'll remove them from the field or do not rent to them in the future. We also have very strict regulations on when groups can get on and when they must be off the fields for their rental times and have staff on site anytime the facility is open to make sure there isn't any unauthorized use."

2. Keep users on the move
"We move the location of our fields every four to five weeks so that wear areas such as the 18-yard boxes and 6-yard boxes are shifted and those areas get a break, and we only paint fields when there are matches. If training is the only thing scheduled during a time period, we will not paint fields so that groups don't 'migrate' to the same areas each time."

3. Give fields time to recover
"We rotate off one of the native-soil fields every seven days to allow natural rest. In addition, we take one native-soil field offline from overseeding every winter and do not bring it back up until the spring. Although the turf experts say that a native soil field should not exceed 400 to 500 hours of use, we find that we can get 600 to 700 hours due to our field rental policies in combination with our maintenance cultural practices for the fields."

4. Communicate expectations
"We communicate heavily with our group leaders to emphasize that if they tear up the fields, they'll lose the ability to rent in the future. We ask them to move around and will actually go out and talk with them if needed to show them how they can move their activity and still get the same result. We also work with the group liaison to manage any complaints that come to us."

This article originally appeared in the January | February 2017 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Collaboration keeps athletic fields maintained when budgets get tight" Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.


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