Council: Memorial Field makeover still approved

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Confusion over 2015 motion was stalling fundraisers
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Oconto Falls city officials want to get the word out: The first stage of a $1.3 million renovation project at Memorial Field has been approved, and Parks and Recreation Director Sheila Manns has the authorization to help raise private funds and incrementally finish that first stage.

The city and the nonprofit Panther Pride Association have been working since the fall of 2015 on a plan to repurpose the park formerly used for middle and high school football games and track meets. The project is to be funded entirely through sponsorships and donations.

The Oconto Falls School District now has its own track and football field at the high school, leaving the city park open for redevelopment.

The City Council in November 2015 authorized Manns to proceed with the first of five stages to renovate the park — building a baseball field where the former track and football field are located.

Not so fast. Manns told the City Council on May 9 that she’s run into a roadblock where some people on the council have apparently been telling potential donors the work has not been approved.

“It’s really hard for me to, you know, go to someone and say hey, Stage 1 is approved, we just need to get some funding and stuff like that, and they turn around and look at me and say, ‘Well, So-and-So said it’s not approved,’” Manns said. “Who are they going to believe, people on the City Council or me?”

The hang-up was in the wording of that November 2015 motion, which authorized Manns to work with the Park and Rec Committee “to seek funding to start and complete Stage 1 as presented to develop Memorial Field Park. Upon completion of Stage 1, they are to come back to Council and present plans for approval before starting Stage 2.”

Alderman Kevin Rusch said the way he understood the motion, the group had to raise all of the funds necessary “to start and complete” the first stage — estimated at $402,000 including lights for the ball field — before they could begin.

“Now they have partial funds and they want to start it; that’s where I’m hung up,” Rusch said.

Alderman Matthew McDermid said, as long as each portion of Stage 1 is not left unfinished, the work should be allowed to go ahead.

“We don’t want it to break ground and have another project like we had for the veterans memorial next to Wells Fargo there, where it just sat with open ground for a long time, and we had to end up putting back dirt over that now and grass again,” McDermid said. “As long as you’re raising the funds and everything, you still have the go-ahead as far as I’m concerned.”

Manns said they don’t expect to have the full $400,000 to put up lights where there are none now.

“That wasn’t our main concern, the main concern was getting the field completed,” she said. That includes putting water pipes and electrical conduit under the field so it doesn’t have to be excavated again when the lights are installed down the road.

Oconto Falls School District athletic director Jerry Moynihan, who attended the meeting for Panther Pride, said getting the preliminary work done could spur other donors to come forward.

“The whole process, like we did on the other two stadiums, was as we got work done, people started to show up with more money,” Moynihan said. “When we get the shovel going, that’s when more people come out of the woodwork. We’re not going to collect $200,000 or even $500,000 by just collecting money; people want to see their money put to use right away.”

If the Memorial Day Weekend Celebration goes well, the group could have $75,000 available by June 1, he said.

“If people are donating, we don’t want to put it into the bank, we want to let them see where their money’s going right away,” Moynihan said. The early work would include taking the old goalposts and lights down, putting up a backstop and leveling the new field. “In a perfect world, we could be playing out there a year from today with a J.V. baseball game.”

Council members grappled for about 15 minutes on language that would clearly state that the group is authorized to work through Stage 1 incrementally as long as they have the funding to complete whatever phase of the stage they’re working on.

Manns said the short-term goal is to have $60,000 to $70,000 on hand to take out the old track and seed it over.

“We don’t want to rip out the track until we know we can make sure that dirt’s moved and set … make sure it’s landscaped and sloped the right way,” she said.