Board to pass or run with turf

Artificial fields would allow more events at two high schools.
Monday, November 8, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 12:24 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Columbia Public School District will decide today whether to fund half the cost to install artificial turf for football fields at Rock Bridge and Hickman high schools.

The Rock Bridge Booster Club approached Bruce Whitesides, director of physical education and athletics, and other members of the athletic department 18 months ago to request another field for soccer. The athletic department decided it wasn’t a viable option and instead proposed installing artificial turf.

Whitesides said each school has 30 to 35 events per year on natural grass, although weather can affect that total. But the resilient nature of artificial turf would allow each school to have more than 300 events including soccer games and practices, Whitesides said, without fear of bad weather or destruction of the field.

The differences between grass and artificial turf do not stop at increased use of athletic fields. Concerns surround the economic benefits, warranty guarantees and player injury rates.

Whitesides said the cost per field could be up to $700,000, depending on the vendor.

He and his group contacted four vendors — A.T.G. Sports, Kiefer, Sprinturf and Sportext — which provided information about the benefits of their products.

Bidding for the installation of artificial turf will not occur until after tonight’s board meeting and will depend on a positive decision by the school board, he said.

A positive ruling will decide whether the district will pay each school $250,000 over 10 years for the installation of artificial turf. The remaining fees would be the responsibility of the two schools through private donations and booster club fund-raisers.

Jacque Cowherd, deputy superintendent for administration, said the district’s funding would be possible through a $25,000 annual reduction in maintenance.

“If we could reduce that maintenance cost, perhaps we could lower that maintenance budget and redirect some of those funds to match a capital outlay for the athletic fields,” he said at the October school board meeting.

Cowherd also said the $1.2 million in district reserves could be used to fund the fields.

Rock Bridge athletic director Vicki Reimler said she and her school support installation of synthetic turf. She listed advantages including durability of the fields, a long-term guarantee and an increased number of events.

“Weather would not be an issue because, unlike grass, the artificial turf does not need constant repair after snow or rainstorms,” she said.

Reimler said she also likes the possibility of an eight- to 10-year warranty with the artificial fields.

However, Brad Fresenburg, an expense and research assistant at MU for 18 years and turf specialist, is not entirely sold on artificial turf.

“We’re starting to see trends toward these types of fields nationally as more and more high schools are looking into artificial turf,” he said.

Fresenburg said he is aware of the positives, but he also said there are many negative aspects of synthetic turf.

“The district’s not really saving anything in Columbia,” he said. “They’re planning on saving $25,000 per field in maintenance cost each year, but they said the cost of installation would be $600,000. That means you’re paying $60,000 for the next 10 years, which is more than the current $25,000 in maintenance fees.”

The possibility of increased injuries to athletes is another question Fresenburg raised.

He said although the new artificial turf is softer than the older models and simulates grass better, it has not been around long enough for sufficient study of injury trends.

Fresenburg said he thinks the new synthetic turf might be less forgiving than grass and that the number of knee injuries could increase.

Whitesides said he doesn’t believe knee injuries would increase with the installation of artificial turf. He said concerns about such injuries do not include the overall picture of athletic safety on soft synthetic fields and that knee injuries occur regardless of whether athletes play on artificial turf or grass.

“We’ve had two injuries this year on natural turf because the athletes’ knees got locked in the field,” he said.

One school that has artificial turf is Rockhurst High School in Kansas City. Doug Bruce, Rockhurst’s athletic director, said he recommends it for other high schools.

“The flexibility that the artificial turf has provided us for outside activities has been extraordinary,” he said. “We are able to use the field for intramural sports, physical education classes and all the athletic teams’ practices and home games.”

Bruce also said the warranty is for 10 years, but he expects the field to last 15 to 20 years.

Fresenburg said that is unlikely. He said the turf installed at places such as the University of Nebraska have recently reached a point where they are guaranteed, but have not yet proved to hold up as long as their warranties stated.

He also warned that certain vendors have loopholes in their warranties. If schools do not perform maintenance on artificial turf, such as smoothing out the surface and refitting it, vendors will take back their guarantees.

Fresenburg said he thinks artificial turf has some merit, but he cannot help but be a grass traditionalist.

“I still like natural grass, but I do have to face facts that artificial turf is becoming more common,” he said.

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