For some schools, the grass is more resilient on the competitor’s turf.
A new wave of school districts, having seen their teams play at rival fields that don’t turn into muddy pits, are exploring new athletic projects that would include synthetic turf.
Sweet Home has a plan to build an artificial turf sports complex behind its high school. Niagara Falls is laying down 11 acres of turf on ten fields throughout the district. And Clarence, Kenmore-Tonawanda and Williamsville are exploring the possibility of asking residents to vote on athletic projects within the next year that would include artificial turf.
In the nearly 10 years since Amherst Central became one of the first high schools in Erie County to install faux turf, the idea is gaining ground in other districts hoping to cut back on maintenance and reduce play time lost to soggy weather.
“In Williamsville, we pride ourselves on being the best in everything, so why not carry that forward into the athletic realm?” Williamsville Superintendent Scott Martzloff told School Board members last week as he explained why the district is convening a task force to look into athletic upgrades that could include turf fields at each of its three high schools.
Natural grass is still the norm for the majority of high school sports fields. But a growing number of districts are moving toward fake grass after seeing the performance of artificial turf. While the projects are pricey and the fields can require replacement after a decade or more of a use, school districts see an advantage in their easy maintenance and all-weather resilience.
“In the early years, you always had your skeptics,” said Jim Dobmeier, president and founder of field builder A-Turf Inc. “Well, lo and behold, their teams go out and they play on these fields when they’re visitors on other people’s home fields and they see all the utility and they see they’re in the best condition at the most important times of the year.”
This is not the green, matted turf of the Kelly-era Rich Stadium days. Today’s fields mimic real grass with synthetic blades.
“These systems look natural, and because they have a rubber and sand granular in-fill on them, they actually play very naturally,” Dobmeier said. “So you don’t get the same abrasions. You don’t get the same wear and tear on the joints as the old ones did.”
Dobmeier’s company, Cheektowaga-based A-Turf, has installed synthetic fields at high schools across the country, including more than two dozen locally, and at professional venues that include Ralph Wilson Stadium.
The company’s projects include installing the turf fields at the new athletic complex under construction at Niagara Falls High School, which includes a main football, soccer and lacrosse field with a concussion pad, as well as a series of fields for other sports.
For Clarence and Williamsville, the idea to consider turf is rooted in maintenance and the ability to use one field for multiple sports.
Williamsville Central Schools had 385 sports cancellations during the spring season, largely due to weather-related problems on athletic fields, Martzloff said. The district sometimes pays for turf time at other venues when fields are unplayable. Wet conditions attract geese and gulls at one field. Grubs infested another, and a steady stream of cleats wear down the grass within a few weeks of the school year, the superintendent said.
“Our fields just can’t keep up,” Martzloff said. “They can’t recover. You could have the grounds crew from Augusta National golf course come and take care of our fields and not be able to do a better job than what our grounds crew does.”
Martzloff has appointed a working group to review the district’s athletic facilities and draw up a plan that could be brought to voters next year. Installation of artificial turf and replacing fitness equipment could top the list, Martzloff said during a Board of Education meeting.
“The plan has to be fiscally responsible,” Martzloff said.
Other school districts are also weighing their financial ability to pay for projects against what officials see as long-term benefits of athletic upgrades.
State reimbursement would help the Kenmore-Tonawanda district pay for a $19.5 million proposal to upgrade arts and athletic facilities, including adding synthetic turf at two sites. The projects would be tied to another series of upgrades that would address health, safety and compliance issues in school buildings. Kenmore-Tonawanda School Board officials are considering bringing the projects to a public vote in December.
In Clarence, board members are still deciding whether to move forward with a series of building and grounds projects. A community task force last month recommended projects totaling $30.9 million to replace roofs, update technology and make other building improvements throughout the district. It also recommended a second, $5 million athletic facilities project that would include synthetic turf that could be used by several teams. Both projects in Clarence would be eligible for up to 70 percent state reimbursement.
“Overuse is probably the largest issue,” Clarence Superintendent Geoffrey Hicks said. “The fields don’t have a chance to recover, and the way the weather is in Western New York, it kind of exacerbates the problem.”
The largest local high school turf project, by far, is already under construction in Niagara Falls, where the district has committed money it receives as a host to the Niagara Power Project to build a sports complex. The district also received a grant from the National Football League for turf at a community football field.
Deputy Superintendent Mark Laurrie said the district insisted on adding a concussion pad to the football field and on getting a 12-year warranty for the turf. School officials from visiting districts, he said, have taken notice of the project’s scope.
“To a person,” Laurrie said, “they shake their head and say, ‘I can’t believe what you’re doing out here.’ ”