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Hartford Track Backers Start New Lap

  • Sophomore Abayomi Lowe practices in the halls of Hartford High School with the indoor track team on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2017 in White River Junction, Vt., to prepare for state championships. The school does not have a track facility. (Valley News - Jovelle Tamayo) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, August 31, 2017

Hartford — Proponents of building a multimillion-dollar track and field at Hartford High School are limbering up for another run at the ballot box next year, hoping that a new approach will help them make the 30-year dream a reality.

In 2013, residents approved a $9 million bond that was supposed to pay for a track along with other school and municipal projects, but when some of the project estimates proved off the mark, the Hartford School Board decided to forgo the track to keep within the spending amount approved by voters.

In 2014, voters twice rejected additional borrowing, effectively killing the track project.

As the children who attended the middle and high schools between 2011 and 2014 graduated, the parents who had advocated for the track lost much of their zeal for the effort.

Chris Sneddon, who once served as president of the nonprofit Friends of the Hartford Track, said he’ll always support the idea, but that he’s moved on to other things.

“We kind of went into senescence,” Sneddon said.

But new developments and fresh blood have rekindled hope for track supporters.

“We are probably one of the only schools that doesn’t have a track,” said Cheryl Beaudine, a Hartford parent whose son, a track athlete, is about to enter eighth grade at Hartford Memorial Middle School. “That’s kind of embarrassing for our community. It needs to be rectified.”

Beaudine is one of a rising crop of parents who has been freshly appalled at the lack of a track, and the arguments they’re making echo the same points that have been used in the debate in previous decades.

“More and more kids are doing video games, or drugs,” Beaudine said. “A track is a great choice to offer them instead.”

The idea of a track also has been rolling around official channels, as earlier this year, a Field Use Committee made up of members of the Hartford School District and the town’s Department of Parks and Recreation drafted a set of recommendations that includes the building of a track facility, either at the high school or the Maxfield Sports Complex off Route 5, with bleachers and a youth football field inside the oval.

One member of that committee was Sheila Hastie, a holdover from the 2013-14 bid to build a track who now leads Friends of Hartford Track. Hastie said Beaudine helped to connect her with a Dartmouth College track and field coach to try to find a new way to make the idea work. That coach referred the group to Skip Weinbel, a Hanover resident whose company, Weinbel Sports Surfaces, has built 300 synthetic tracks, including 150 with artificial turf fields, throughout North and South America.

Weinbel has agreed to act as a consultant for Friends of Hartford Track, and has reviewed the technical planning documents associated with previous track plans. He is helping Hastie and other track proponents develop a budget for a new track proposal, with a goal of presenting it to voters for a new bond vote in March.

Based on feedback she’s received from members of the public, Hastie, who works as an optometrist in Bradford, Vt., said she feels the previous effort failed because of a lack of faith in the process used by the School Board, whose estimate of the project cost went to $3.2 million in 2014 from $800,000 in 2013.

A citizen-led group drawing on Weinbel’s expertise, she said, will provide a fresh perspective.

“We want the public to be assured that this came from us, and that we did it right,” Hastie said. “I’m hoping that will give people more faith in the process.”

Hastie said the group hopes to receive School Board approval for its vision, but that it plans to bring the idea to the public in March with or without that endorsement.

Hartford School Board Chairman Kevin Christie, a former Hartford coach, said on Wednesday that he remains in support of the concept, but that the board hadn’t heard about this latest push.

“I really shouldn’t comment at this time, since we haven’t communicated, in all fairness to the rest of the board,” Christie said.

Hastie said she also hopes to avoid bogging the proposal down in a debate about the merits of a turf field. Using an artificial surface became the most hotly debated feature of the 2014 proposal, with opponents questioning it on grounds that ranged from environmental to player safety concerns.

That’s not to say that the group has ruled turf out.

Despite preliminary site assessments conducted by the School District in 2013, Weinbel said, no one knows the composition of the ground beneath the proposed track. And until a complete geotechnical analysis and other preliminary work is done — which he estimates would cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $100,000 — Weinbel said no one can say for sure whether the inside of the oval should be finished with a turf field or natural grass.

“You build a budget for your foundation and then you build a budget for your finishes,” Weinbel said. “But you have to start with the foundation. You can’t build the finishes first. Last time around they started with the finishes and then they had no money for the foundation.”

Weinbel said that rather than identifying all of the specific features of the project, he hopes the public will turn out to support the principles that will guide its development.

“No. 1 is safety. No. 2 is all weather. You want a safe, all-weather facility that has longevity of use,” he said.

Weinbel said he can build a single project budget that would be appropriate for either scenario — turf or natural grass.

But former School Board member Jeff Arnold, who in 2014 opposed a proposal to build a combined turf field and track but expressed support for a standalone track, doesn’t believe that a single project budget for either option involving turf or natural grass could be possible because, he said, turf fields add dramatically to the cost.

“They’re too different,” he said.

But Weinbel described the difference as largely cosmetic.

“No matter (whether) you build a synthetic turf field or a natural grass field, you have to build the right field for your location,” he said.

Arnold said he’s not categorically opposed to the concept of a track.

“The reason I fought against it at the time was they were cutting teachers, cutting programs,” he said. “It did not make sense.”

The renewed push for a track also might benefit from administrative changes. Since 2014, longtime track supporter Jeff Moreno has taken a job as assistant principal in charge of athletics at Hartford High School, while another supporter, Scott Hausler, was promoted to director of Parks and Recreation earlier this year.

Right now, Hausler said, about 40 children enrolled in the department’s summer track program have to cross the river into Lebanon to run on an actual track.

“And there’s lots of potential, programmatically, to develop senior walking programs,” he said.

At the high school, Moreno said, Hartford track and field students currently split their practices between grassy areas on the high school campus and trips to the track at Lebanon High School, depending on weather and availability. That’s not ideal, he said, though he acknowledged that the desire for a field should be balanced with other community needs, including an ongoing push to bond a multimillion-dollar renovation of the 104-year-old Wilder School.

Building a track and field could attract more tuition dollars to the district, Moreno said.

“I am a firm believer in curb appeal,” he said. “A nice athletic compound with a turf field and a track, that will get more people into the building to have the conversation to then tell them about all the other great stuff going on.”

Hastie said that discussion is still in its early stages, and the group hopes to begin holding formal meetings in the coming weeks.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.

Clarification

In 2014, Hartford resident Jeff Arnold opposed a proposal to build a combined turf field and track within the Hartford School District but expressed support for a standalone track. An earlier version of this story was unclear on his position.