Slippery situation: Finding funding for fields
Sierra Sun sports editor
[Editor’s note: This is the second installment in a four-part series looking at the poor field conditions at Tahoe Truckee High School and possible solutions.]
In the fall of 2000, Truckee resident Gary Lewis, a father of four boys who have graduated or will graduate from Tahoe Truckee High School, received a phone call from another parent concerned about her child’s safety.
“Our soccer field is not in very good condition,” she told Lewis.
Four years later, Lewis came to know all too well what the woman was talking about. Lewis’ son, Cameron, was a senior defensive lineman on the 2004 Truckee football team. During a scrimmage last August at Truckee’s Surprise Stadium, Cameron hyperextended his knee and was sidelined for the next three-and-a-half weeks.
“Nobody touched him,” recalled Lewis. “It was an injury that could only be related to the poor conditions of the field. You could see his knee hyperextend on the uneven playing surface.”
Cameron spent the remainder of the season wearing a special brace that cost the Lewis family $560. It’s the sort of situation the woman feared when she called Lewis four years ago. Since that phone call, Lewis has been an outspoken advocate for finding a solution to the deficient field conditions that exist on the soccer, football, baseball and the East-West fields.
As of summer 2003, the fields became the property of the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District. Now many people believe the current field conditions are the worst ever. Not only are the fields used by Truckee athletes, they are used by the Truckee High physical education classes, visiting athletic teams and the community.
The poor playing surfaces at the high school even prompted a recent letter by Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association executive director Jerry Hughes. That letter, among other things, has brought the field issue back to the forefront.
Since 1995, Lewis has been a trainer for the Truckee football team for eight of those seasons, but he has been even more heavily involved in all Truckee High athletics since he became president of the Truckee Boosters in May 2003. Lewis thought ” and still thinks, as do many others ” that the best solution to the beleaguered fields is a synthetic turf field, a revolution in field design that became popular in America in the late 1990s. But Lewis knew such a project would come with a hefty price tag.
“I thought how could I formulate a plan where someone would say, ‘Yeah, here’s X amount of dollars to put the field in,’ when you’re in the middle of nowhere,” Lewis said.
Lewis knew it would be a challenge to bring a synthetic turf field to a small mountain town like Truckee. Nevertheless, he tinkered with the idea.
Some time after the phone conversation with the concerned Truckee soccer parent, Lewis was on a business trip in the Salt Lake City area. While driving down a main street in Murray, Utah, he noticed a huge billboard advertisement in front of a local high school that read, essentially, “These are the proud sponsors of Murray High School.”
Upon returning home to Truckee, Lewis said he phoned the school in Murray and learned that it generated about $7,000 a month from the sign. He imagined a similar circumstance in Truckee ” only better. With a main thoroughfare like Interstate 80 running through the middle of town, Lewis said he thought Truckee would be the perfect place for such a billboard.
“That was the impetus that got me going,” he said, “and I thought we could do two fields.”
When Lewis took the idea to Bob Shaffer, Truckee High athletic director and head football coach, Shaffer said he thought two fields might be a bit overzealous, but he endorsed the idea of at least building one. A new synthetic turf field could be the primary physical education field and a safe playing surface to host both football and soccer events.
With a vision intact, Lewis was eventually contacted by For the Game, a Southern California government finance company. Headed by Jeff Scott and based in San Diego, the company had the ability to design, construct and market a billboard, as it had done for various schools and park and recreation programs in Southern California.
After meeting with Lewis and Truckee High principal Mike Finney, Scott’s company proposed a plan in fall 2002 that would have put a billboard on the south side of the Truckee High soccer field, Lewis said. The only stipulation was that the company couldn’t advertise alcohol or cigarette ads. Finney, Lewis and others who wanted the new field thought they were home free. They even had the support of Pat Gemma, the previous superintendent of the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District.
“He embraced it, so I was off and running,” Lewis said.
That was until the finance company learned that the billboard plan was not as simple as a few Truckee residents nodding their collective heads. The logistics of putting a billboard on I-80 soon became more complicated than improving field conditions at Truckee High.
To compound the speculation that has surrounded the issue, no formal plan of the billboard’s construction or placement was ever presented to the Truckee Town Council.
“It has never been discussed at the council level,” said Councilman Josh Susman. “I’ve never seen a report or study; it’s all been verbalized. The community’s never been asked to talk about it.”
Like many members of the Truckee community, Susman has only heard of the billboard idea through word-of-mouth. For such a project to be approved, an official proposal would have to be made to the Town of Truckee because of zoning regulations ” or the school district would have to find a way to skirt the regulations.
Tony Lashbrook, Truckee’s community development director, is another person that has had a few phone discussions with school district representatives about the possibility of the billboard, but the idea never fully materialized. The placement of a billboard would go against Town of Truckee zoning regulations, Lashbrook said.
“I’ve never seen any plan,” Lashbrook said. “But I’ve also asked, ‘Have you looked at any other fund-raising options?’ Maybe this (billboard idea) sounds easy, but there are other options.”
There were a few key players in the Truckee political arena, including Susman, who voiced their concerns to Scott’s company about how a billboard on I-80 might clash with town regulations and ordinances. But again, there was never an official proposal made.
“I don’t know if a billboard would be consistent with the town’s vision for I-80, but it can’t be said that there was ever anyone against the billboard because there was never an official proposal,” Susman said. “There was never any official act on behalf of the town that would have stopped a deal the school district had with any company.
“Great fields would be a great asset,” Susman added, “and I believe we could have better fields. But a billboard solution needs to have a public process.”
When Scott and his associates caught wind of the conflicting stance between the billboard and the zoning regulations and how the community might react, For the Game chose to back out early in 2003.
Losing For the Game’s services forced Lewis to pursue other options.
“When I lost Scott’s group, I stumbled around trying to find a company,” Lewis said. “I had to put a sales hat on for a year.”
In the end, Lewis sought out Foster Media, Inc., a Bay Area company that specializes in motorized advertising signs called trivision ” triangular prisms that rotate at brief intervals.
In Foster Media’s proposed plan to advertise on I-80, according to Lewis, it was estimated that between $7,500 and $10,000 a month in revenue would be generated. That would have been plenty of financial help to build a new synthetic field at Surprise Stadium ” Truckee High’s 30-year-old football field.
Foster Media agreed to build the sign and even got to the point of drawing up a 15-year contract, which it e-mailed to Lewis. Foster Media eventually took pictures of where the sign was going to be; again on the south side of the soccer field.
Still, an official plan never came before the town, and now Lewis didn’t even have the support of the superintendent. Dennis Williams, who eventually took over Gemma’s position in May 2003, was not in favor of the proposed plan.
“I felt it was very controversial,” Williams said. “You don’t see billboards on the I-80 corridor. I felt it wasn’t being sensitive to the community. If the school board agreed to a billboard, it would have been divisive with the community, and I didn’t want to go there.”
On May 10, 2004, Williams met with Lewis and told him that the school district wouldn’t agree to Foster Media’s original contract proposal.
The Tahoe Truckee school board has dedicated time in recent meetings to the discussion of poor field conditions and possible solutions. To Lewis, who said he spent nine months getting approval for the billboard from Caltrans, the fact that the project did not go through still perturbs him.
“Had it gone through, the field would have been done in fall 2003,” he said.
It’s also disconcerting to others who were sure they had found a solution to the field problem that has only gotten worse since Lewis took that phone call in 2000.
“What makes it hard for me is when we have an opportunity to get up to $1.5 million for basically free to put a sign up out there,” Truckee High’s Shaffer said. “I’m not just referring to the district office, but our community in general because there are a few people out there trying to protect the I-80 corridor.”
For Lewis, who at one time endorsed the upgrade to synthetic turf for a variety of reasons, now has one specific focus.
“What I care about are the number of injuries that are now being caused by these fields, and I had a plan to take care of all of that that wouldn’t cost the school anything,” he said. “Now I’m back to square zero trying to find somebody.”
Lewis noted that he has not cut off discussions with Foster Media about placing a billboard on I-80.
Williams, meanwhile, said that the billboard proposal was a school board agenda item prior to his arrival, but no official action was made. At the last board meeting, however, school district staff was asked to gather information about the billboard possibility, which is tentatively scheduled to be discussed at the Jan. 8, 2005 meeting.
Another option that has been mentioned is seeking out a corporate sponsorship like professional sports franchises do with their stadiums (ie. Minute Maid Park, Staples Center).
[Part three of the Sierra Sun’s series will look at the arguments for and against synthetic turf compared to natural grass. Part one (below) ran in the Nov. 17 Sierra Sun sports section and dealt with the reasons why the field conditions have gotten so bad.]
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Students frustrated at the cancellation of sports waved signs and delivered speeches at a Truckee High School protest in an attempt to return to the field this year.