Plan to surface some fields with synthetic material makes possibility of year-round sports cost-effective

Turf has recreation officials seeing green


In the past few years, the Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks has tried to figure out how to keep some of its fields playable. Department officials crunched numbers and looked at the various costs involved in making overused fields safe for residents to play on.

That's when they found something interesting. They realized that, over the long term, paying for and installing an artificial surface would be economically feasible.

"We would almost break even," said Gary J. Arthur, director of Recreation and Parks.

Arthur and department officials started putting plans in place to put artificial fields in parks with lighting. The department installed the first one last summer, has two more likely to open this spring and hopes to install a total of one per year for a total of six years.

Putting in the new fields became something that Recreation and Parks needed to look at for several reasons. The department has so many fields and leagues that keeping grass on them has become a very difficult task.

Increased use

Arthur said this has become a bigger issue in the past 10 years. As the number of participants in their sports programs has increased, the number of games and people on the fields have increased, too.

"We had been talking about this for the last two or three years," said community sports supervisor Mike Milani. "It makes sense to do that because of the amount of play we have on our lit fields."

Arthur and Milani said that fields with lighting are the only ones that get considered for artificial turf because those are the fields that are used the most.

The synthetic turf, "Field Turf," is 240 feet by 360 feet, about the size of a college soccer field. Those dimensions were chosen because it will enable the department put a variety of sports on the field, such as soccer, lacrosse, football and field hockey.

These new fields also must be graded with the proper drainage put in. The cost of the turf itself is around $390,000 to $420,000 - depending upon the field's size - and Arthur said the department wants to put these fields in as many parks as possible - instead of placing them side-by-side in a few parks - so that more people in the county have a chance to use them. The field itself is a carpet made of synthetic fibers. The top layer is composed of recycled tennis shoes. A look at the artificial turf field at Rockburn Park shows different colors in certain spots all over the field.

Rockburn Park had the first artificial turf installed last summer and was used for fall sports. The new Western Regional Park will have two artificial turf fields, which department officials are hoping to open by mid-April and use for spring sports.

More could be on the way. Howard County Executive James N. Robey has backed the concept of having one field built each year for a total of six years. Arthur said if the money is approved, Cedar Lane Park would be next to get an artificial field, in 2007.

Centennial Park is next on the list after that, followed by Rockburn, Cedar Lane and Centennial once more. All of these would be done on a yearly basis, depending on the will of the next county executive. But Arthur is optimistic.

"Hopefully, we'll get the new county executive's support," he said. "I'm hoping he'll throw his initiative behind it."

Guaranteed product

Arthur also said a big reason the department decided to go with this project is the guarantee that Field Turf offered.

"The warranty that comes along with it ... says that if anything goes wrong with that surface over an eight-year period, the company would replace it," Arthur said.

In the end, the artificial turf field helps Recreation and Parks in a number of ways.

"In terms of park operations, it saves them a ton of time," said Janell Coffman from Recreation and Parks, who runs a number of programs. "There's no lining of the fields, no cutting of grass. They can focus on different aspects of keeping up the grass."

Scheduling ease

Coffman also said that having a field like this helps with scheduling.

"In terms of recreation programs, it's a godsend when it comes to scheduling make-ups, because weather almost becomes a nonissue," she said. "You have to worry about lightning or snow on the field, but other than that, that's it."

The artificial turf fields also become a money-maker for the county as it lets Recreation and Parks put on more sports with fewer rain-outs and cancellations. In addition, it stretches the department's schedule in other positive ways.

Milani said that, in years past, outdoor fields were generally used from Nov. 15 to April 15 and shut down after that. Games played on them during the colder winter months could wear down the fields, cause damage and make the task of keeping them playable even tougher.

But that will change with the artificial turf fields. Milani said that teams could begin practicing for spring sports as early as mid-February - weather permitting. They're also going to try outdoor winter sports.

The new field already has drawn interest from other groups, including local high school teams. That's just what Arthur wants.

"We want to expose everyone we can to it," Arthur said. "We're very loose on the fee structure for the first year. We want to see how Howard County organizations use it."

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