NORTH SMITHFIELD – New concession stands and bathrooms are on the horizon for the athletic fields at North Smithfield High School, but the main attraction – an artificial turf field installed some 13 years ago – is badly in need of replacement.

At a cost of more than $1 million, Supt. Michael St. Jean noted that the project to rehabilitate the field will take collaboration between town and school officials, as well as possible corporate sponsors.

And he’s hopeful it can get accomplished this year.

“This is a big project,” St. Jean said. “It’s gone well past its life expectancy.”

The superintendent recently presented the project to the Planning Board as a capital expense, acknowledging that it’s unlikely the town can fund the full cost in a single year.

“I know there’s a lot of pressure on the town budget and I feel guilty coming in with these numbers,” St. Jean said. “It comes down to $200,000 a year over a five year payment if we’re able to finance this thing. I’d like to get something in place before the field can no longer be patched up.”

Replacement, St. Jean noted, is long overdue. The field and adjoining track, installed at the same time in 2008, had a ten year life span. And while short-term maintenance can help to expand the facility’s use, patch ups can only buy so much time.

Studies have found that the deterioration of artificial turf also decreases the field’s original ability to absorb shock, increasing the potential for injury.

“Talk about kicking the can down the road. This is kicking a keg,” said St. Jean. “It’s at the point where we’re going to break our foot on this one, or maybe, literally, and actually break a foot.”

The superintendent noted that he’s included the field’s potential replacement in budget discussions over at least the past three years. But the project has taken a back seat to other large-scale efforts addressing health and safety at North Smithfield schools, such as the recent decommissioning of Halliwell Elementary School, and upgrades to classroom space.

Unlike those projects, St. Jean noted that the field replacement is not eligible for reimbursement from the Rhode Island Department of Education.

“We’re on this one on our own,” St. Jean said. “We have this as a capital expense every year.”

The latest initiative comes as a separate effort is underway to build bathrooms and concession stands by the field. That project, included as a bonus for the town as part of approval of a solar project by Green Development, is now in the planning and permitting stage, with an update expected next month.

With that improvement in mind, St. Jean noted it’s the right time to look at the field itself.

“We’re open to anything we can to subsidize and offset the cost,” he told planners last week. “I don’t care if CVS wants to put giant signs all over the place.”

The School Department’s tentative capital budget, which also includes items such as Chromebooks and a cargo van, was presented to members of the School Committee for approval this week. Even spread out over five years, the field, by far, was the largest expense.

St. Jean noted that many athletic fields across the state have been closed due to COVID-19, making monitoring the North Smithfield facility an issue.

“We chase people off the field from neighboring schools who bus their team over for practice,” he said.

The field is available for rental by permit, and the superintendent noted that there’s currently $150,000 in the rental account, some of which will go toward replacement costs. Some additional funding could come through a school district surplus, which officials noted this week currently totals $210,000.

“If we run a surplus, and we go to the town, maybe we can just put this to bed,” said School Committee Chairman James Lombardi. “You can get a lot more money by renting the facility. I think this can be a win/win for everybody.”

“We’ve talked about it for a long time,” Lombardi added. “It’s a beautiful facility.”

The district is currently contracting with a company to update pricing and perform an architectural review of the field, and St Jean said he expects to provide hard numbers for a cost of the project soon.

“I had this done three years ago,” he said of the preparation work. “I was hoping that we would act on it earlier.”

Planners seemed open to the idea of working out a plan during budget discussions, with some expressing surprise that the town hasn’t already allocated some money for the expense.

“I do recall that we’ve talked about this for a couple of years now,” said Planning Board Chairman Gary Palardy. “Are you saying none of this was approved? I really thought some of this was getting funded.”

“The field definitely needs it,” Palardy said. “There’s places where the seams are coming up, and I’m worried about kids getting injuries.”

Noting that he himself has used the field on occasion, Palardy said he does not think town residents should have to get a permit to use it when the field is open.

St. Jean agreed, noting that he believes facilities should be open to anyone in town, with seniors, for one example, walking on the track.

“I really think the school should be there for the community,” St. Jean said.  “They’re a great public facility and resource and we want them open to the public.”

Palardy said replacement costs should be worked into ongoing budget discussions in the future, so the district is better repaired for replacement in another ten years.

And this week, St. Jean told committee members that he’s hopeful following the positive discussion with planners.

“They got it especially with the concession stand coming,” he said. “They really see it as a great community resource. I think something’s going to happen this year.”

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