Amherst Regional’s track project likely in council’s lap

The Regional School Committee this week deferred a decision to the Town Council to determine the scope of renovations to the Amherst Regional High School track and its interior field.

The Regional School Committee this week deferred a decision to the Town Council to determine the scope of renovations to the Amherst Regional High School track and its interior field. gazette file photo

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 05-17-2024 4:30 PM

AMHERST — Town Council is likely to determine the scope of renovations to the Amherst Regional High School track and its interior field after the Regional School Committee this week deferred the final decision on the project to Amherst’s elected councilors.

While the committee on Tuesday voted unanimously in favor of pursuing the least expensive project, at a cost of around $1.7 million — and the only one for which enough money is in hand from the four regional towns to proceed — members left open the possibility of a more elaborate and expensive project. But that would depend on action by the Town Council.

The vote moves forward the cheapest option that maintains the track and field’s existing east-west orientation, but with an eight-lane track and renovated interior grass field.

The second option is for a $3.4 million project that also maintains the existing orientation, but with an eight-lane track and full reconstruction of the grass field, by pulling out all topsoil and amending it and rebuilding the drainage system under the field, and doing an LED lights retrofit. This is contingent on the Town Council and the Community Preservation Act Committee in Amherst removing restrictions that $1.7 million previously appropriated, including $800,000 from the CPA account and $900,000 in free cash, only go toward an artificial turf field.

A final option would require an additional Amherst appropriation of $756,160 to do a $4.23 million project that would reorient the track to a north-south direction, build an eight-lane track that is in World Athletics configuration, increase the size of the interior multipurpose field with new underground drainage, and install a new bleacher pad.

Interim Superintendent Douglas Slaughter said he hopes there is sufficient time for the Town Council and CPA to take up the added spending and to refine the original votes by the end of June.

Under any of the scenarios, bids could go out by January 2025, with construction to be completed over the summer of 2025.

Leverett representative Tilman Wolf said he supports Slaughter’s recommendations and made the motion to pursue the “three-option” plan. “It guarantees we get to a solution, while considering a reasonable set of other options,” Wolf said.

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The costs of the projects are based on information from Kevin Fuselier, principal landscape architect for SLR Consulting, who said costs are coming down due to a favorable environment for bidding. The plans have all eliminated synthetic turf, which could have slowed things down, Fuselier said.

“We’re confident that we can give everyone a little more time to figure out budgets, to figure out what design that they want to move forward with us with,” Fuselier said.

Amherst representative Sarah Marshall said she remains concerned that a grass field can’t withstand the wear and tear.

“I think we have magical thinking about how we’re going to take care of this so well that we can continue to play on it as much as we do,” Marshall said. “I’m not ready to say we’ve eliminated artificial turf if there is enough money, (but) obviously there isn’t yet.”

Even with the unanimous vote, some members are also concerned that the committee is already asking too much from Amherst, with a 6% operating fiscal year 2025 budget increase that exceeds the 4% increase set by the town. Slaughter, though, said town officials prefer a north-south orientation of the track and field and it also leads to efficiency in playing space elsewhere on the high school site.

“I think the ask is one that is clearly understanding the context of where the town sits and what they think about this,” Slaughter said.

At a previous meeting, Assistant Town Manger David Ziomek advised against abandoning the more expensive projects.

Still, Amherst representative Bridget Hynes said she is concerned about making another big request. “I have a lot of hesitation to go forward with 3C, even though it looks beautiful,” Hynes said.

“I think it might hypothetically hurt to ask (for more),” said Amherst representative Jennifer Shiao.

Amherst representative Irv Rhodes said it makes the committee look bad to make an appeal for more money. “Asking for funding that is far and above from what is available from all sources, we’re asking the town find the money somewhere to fund this, while we’re asking at the same breath for a 6%,” Rhodes said.

Shutesbury representative Anna Heard said she would rather have extra money go to supporting teachers salaries than a capital project.

But Pelham representative William Sherr said presenting all three options means the decision is up to the Town Council.

“I see it as these are three options, and the ask is which one are we going to choose, which one can we afford,” Sherr said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.