Momentum builds for athletic facility upgrades

17 August 2017

Longview is responding to a growing chorus calling for major upgrades to the city’s athletic facilities.

After prodding from local residents, the Longview School Board on Monday created a committee to assess the district’s middle and high school athletic facility needs. The committee’s goal is to come up with priorities, said Superintendent Dan Zorn.

“It will be an expensive endeavor. We have a lot of needs here, and my hope is that once we get to that point we’ll look at a combination of public and private funding,” Zorn said.

Meanwhile, at a workshop on Tuesday, the Longview City Council gave the Parks Department authority to study the feasibility of building a new multi-purpose regional athletic facility.

“Voices were definitely heard last evening and there’s some passion behind it,” said Parks and Recreation Director Jennifer Wills.

Proponents say that building a new multi-million dollar regional athletic facility capable of hosting tournaments would boost the local economy and pay for itself quickly.

Woodland is developing a $16 million sports complex, and artificial turf is springing up on a number of surrounding area’s fields, leaving some residents worrying that Longview could be left in the dust.
Field maintenance

Representatives from local youth leagues say the facility use agreements that leagues sign with the city have allowed fields to gradually deteriorate. Under current practice, those agreements give leagues year-round responsibility for field maintenance.

This has resulted in sporadic maintenance between seasons, said Andrea Bergquis, president of the Longview Babe Ruth baseball league.

“It becomes really hard when you’re volunteer-run and there’s a lack of money,” she said. “Volunteer leagues have a lot of turnover.”

Western Youth Baseball President Jason McClung said fields in Longview haven’t always operated this way. Prior to 2008, the city maintained fields from September through February, he said. When McClung became league president in 2009, he signed an agreement giving the league sole responsibility for field maintenance of the diamonds at John Null Park.

It’s a similar story with the Longview School District’s fields. Zorn said the district does the best it can with its five-person maintenance team but admitted that it also leans on outside help.

“I would say that we’re reliant to some degree on volunteers,” Zorn said.

McClung said he put in between 270 and 300 hours of work on the Mark Morris baseball field over the summers when his son played on the team. With both of his daughters now playing Monarchs soccer, he works on the field the high school team shares with Lower Columbia College.

McClung said there’s typically about 1 inch of standing water in the center of the field after watering it. “The choice is basically playing on something that’s rock hard and yellow or something that’s mushy and green,” he said.

McClung said he recently spent his own money to rent a roller to smooth deep ruts left on the field by a contractor’s four-wheel drive vehicle.

“The maintenance department just doesn’t have the equipment that they need,” he said.

Longview School Board President C.J. Nickerson said the new fields committee will deliver an earlier report on facility problems that require immediate attention. Looking out further, Nickerson said the track at Mark Morris High School and the field at Longview Memorial Stadium are in need of most urgent repair.
Economic impact

Strojan Kennison remembers when Longview was a softball hub that connected teams from Oregon and Washington. The 44-year-old Shoreline, Wash., resident said he used to constantly make the drive to Longview with his father, who played in one of the dozens of teams that competed here in tournaments in the 1970s.

“From Friday to Sunday, you were looking at anywhere from 32 to 60 teams playing on a regular basis,” Kennison said.

Kennison now serves as the Washington and Oregon executive director of the United States Specialty Sports Association, an organization that promotes tournaments for a variety of sports, including softball and baseball.

Kennison’s name came up at Tuesday’s City Council workshop as someone who could advise the city on building a new regional athletic complex. Kennison has already advised the cities of Kent and Lynnwood on their own fields.

According to USSA data, Kent netted about $1.1 million from a recent five-day softball tournament that featured 24 men’s teams and eight women’s teams. The regional economic impact totaled roughly $10.3 million, he said.

“Just in hotel rooms alone for out of town teams we were at almost half a million,” Kennison said.

Kennison said Longview would need to build a six-field facility with turf infields for his organization to view the city as a potential tournament destination.

Kennison said one of the most common obstacles to this vision is “fear of the unknown.”

“It’s something that’s new to the community, it’s not status quo and it’s thinking outside the box,” he said.

Cost is always a big factor, he added. Kennison said artificial turf infields with 90-foot base cutouts typically cost around $200,000, while covering an entire baseball field in turf costs about $1 million.

Wills said the parks department will be creating an advisory committee to explore potential public-private partnerships for funding a new regional athletic facility.

“I’ve been with the city for 11 years, and it’s been a need for 11 years, if not longer,” she said.

Wills said one of the biggest challenges from her perspective is getting everyone on the same page and identifying potential funding sources.

“It’s going to take a lot of different funding streams,” she said. “The more hands that we can get involved in this the better.”