BY JEFF FALK
Palmyra’s overall athletic program is among the finest – if not The Finest – in Lebanon County. And the Cougar sports teams have always been well support by the Palmyra community.
So it would seem that Palmyra deserves outdoor athletic facilities that are similar in quality.
The Palmyra Area School District is about to approve – or not approve – a plan that would provide a much-needed upgrade to the playing and practice fields used by a majority of the Cougars’ outside sports programs. It is a proposal that has been ten years in the making, and one that will positively affect the Cougars’ athletic program at least that far into the future.
At the heart of the $4.16 million project are two turf fields that would be constructed at the Palmyra Middle School.
The first will serve as an update and make-over for the legendary Buck Swank Stadium, turning the lumpy grass of its center into modern all-weather, easy-to-maintain turf. The second would be another turf field built on a vacant lot directly west of Buck Swank bordering South Locust Street, on the site of the former Irwin ‘Burky’ Burkholder baseball field.
The Palmyra school board will conduct a public/informational session about the project in the high school auditorium at 6 p.m. on Thursday evening. Nov. 2nd. The following Thursday night, Nov. 9, at 6 p.m., the school board will formally vote on the proposal.
“Palmyra is such a close-knit town,” said Palmyra athletic director Brian Weidler. “They embrace the teams. I think we did it right this time. Every contribution is tax-deductible. In terms of momentum and energy, it’s been tremendous. We expect a large turnout in support of the project, at the next two board meetings.
“The biggest need we’re addressing is our field short fall,” continued Weidler. “We’re 24 fields deficient, for our physical education classes, the band and our athletic programs. We’ve been through this twice prior. In 2002, I started talking about turf. In 2010, a more official presentation was made, and the vote was tabled. Here we are again in 2017. The difference in the early years was that it was a want, now it’s a decided need.”
Certainly the cost of the project, which will be tied in with a larger renovation project at Palmyra Middle School, is substantial. But through letters of interest, the project has received financial commitments of $850,000 of private funds, and the plan is designed to avoid using tax dollars to finance it.
“The board has heard and there’s been dialogue,” said Weidler. “Thursday will be the final presentation by our Cougar Committee. They (school board members) will see the financial background, and we’re tying this in with our middle school building project. We’re floating a bond and coinciding with our middle school project.
“What they’re (school board members) going to see is our letters of intent, which are not legal documents,” added Weidler. “But we’re going to be able to show $850,000, which is not fund-raising. We have kids who have bought in and agreed to raise money. We want to show the board that there’s long-term viability.”
For the past number of years, Palmyra’s field hockey, boys’ soccer, girls’ soccer, boys’ lacrosse and girls’ lacrosse programs have been playing their home games off campus at In The Net Sports Complex, about two miles away. But while some of In The Net’s facilities are in need of their own updating, the Cougars just want their own place to call ‘home.’
Prior to that, some of those sports’ home contests were played at Palmyra High School and Buck Swank Stadium.
“In 2007, our field hockey boosters wanted all their games on turf,” said Weidler. “They started renting out In The Net at their own expense. In 2010, we got more teams down there. In The Net has been a savior. It’s not that we’re unhappy or dissatisfied. We want something we can call ‘our’s’, a place where we can hang our banners and foster community spirit.
“In 2010, we entered into a formal relationship with In The Net,” added Weidler. “They’ve been a great venue. But we haven’t been able to call it our true home.”
Turf fields have – and continue to be – a bit of a sore subject for athletics in Lebanon County. The locale has consistently lagged behind its larger, surrounding counties in terms of number and quality of fields.
Should the current Palmyra project be approved, the Cougars would become only the second school district in Lebanon County to feature a synthetic turf field. Cedar Crest is about ten years removed from constructing Arnold Field at Earl Boltz Stadium.
And while Lebanon Valley College is home to another turfed Arnold Field, similar facilities at public school districts like Lebanon, Northern Lebanon, Elco and Annville-Cleona seem years off.
“If you’re willing to wait, more education comes along all the time,” said Weidler of turf fields. “We tend to compare ourselves to the Hersheys and Lower Dauphins, who have two turf fields. All the athletic directors I talked to said they wish they had two.
“For eight years, we won’t have to worry about Mother Nature, about aerating, about crab grass,” Weidler continued. “You can play in any kind of weather with these fields. With all the programs going on in the fall, they would be utilized daily, from three to ten o’clock. A lot of groups will come a-knocking.”
Buck Swank Stadium would continue to host football and would be able to accommodate field hockey. Field Two, which would also be lighted, could accommodate field hockey, soccer and lacrosse.
“We spent a lot of time trying to make that happen,” said Weidler of the possibility of erecting turf fields on the high school campus. “We’re challenged with being a little land-locked. It was more cost-effective to turf Buck Swank Stadium and put in a second field.
“It is what it costs,” continued Weilder. “The bulk of that number is erection of a new mini-stadium. Lighting is a major expenditure. The last go-around would have increased taxes. What they’re (the Cougar Committee) going to be able to show is no increase in taxes.”
The cost for ten-year naming/sponsor rights for the entire project is $225,000, or $100,000 for each individual field. Buck Swank will retain its name, but with the added moniker ‘Sponsor’s Field’ at Buck Swank Stadium.
“In retrospect, in 2010, we were only talking about one turf field,” said Weidler. “Seven years later, prices have become more competitive. It’s kind of like waiting to buy a new I-phone. If you wait, prices will come down.”