Parks & Rec Comm. Tackles Budget, Basketball and Bubbles (for Indoor Field House)

Photo: ChelseaPiersCT.com

“Bubble” seemed to be the magic word at last night’s Parks and Recreation Commission Meeting, where the committee tackled the concept of bringing an indoor field house to Wilton and the anticipated COVID-19 regulations and expected challenges for the delayed Winter sports season.

The Commission’s heavy agenda also involved looking at the annual fiscal year budget, with an optimistic look toward next year’s programming.

Indoor Field House Project Concept

The meeting began with former Planning and Zoning Chairman and Zoning Board of Appeals Chair Scott Lawrence and VP of Wilton Youth Lacrosse Association J.R. Sherman presenting on their “Wilton Indoor Field Concept,” what they believe would both fill a community need and be an opportunity for monetary and population gains.

The Commission voted unanimously on the concept only, saying they support further exploration of the idea. However, several board members brought up concerns about how realistic it was for the town to undertake a project as ambitious and time-consuming as this when smaller projects have faced significant resistance.

Lawrence posed the Indoor Field Space concept as an undertaking that could not only help support the community but also give Wilton a competitive edge over other towns for attracting new residents.

“J.R. and I, and a couple other parents, have in the last couple of months been looking at ways to get Wilton on the map basically for the coming exodus that has been coming out of New York,” Lawrence said. “One of the most important things that people look at when they look at towns is amenities.”

Sherman, who cited his experience coaching teams with players from around the Metropolitan New York areas, described the influx of people coming to Fairfield County as “staggering.” He believes that athletic facilities play a “significant” role in differentiating the towns.

Though adding a turf field alone could still help the community, Sherman said an indoor facility would be “so much more on an annual basis for such a broader swath of the community,” and could provide the town a clear advantage in the county when attracting people to move here.

“This is the type of thing that puts us to the top of the list,” he said. “We’re not going to win by adding a turf field, we wouldn’t even win by adding five turf fields, but we have the potential as a town to be the winner in drawing attention and amenities by putting in a facility like this.”

The closest indoor facilities are in SoNo, Danbury and Chelsea Piers. Sherman said that based on his knowledge of the Wilton Lacrosse Association and Wilton Soccer Association, teams in the town spend around $160,000 annually to rent out indoor spaces. Sherman added that the demand for indoor space is incredibly high, with Wilton teams booking space nearly a year in advance.

Along with the need, Lawrence said the space could also pose an opportunity for monetary gain for the town. Though the exact gain possibilities have yet to be explored in-depth, he said private clubs are “proliferating in each sport” particularly field sports such as soccer, football, lacrosse, and field hockey.

“All the field sports need more time playing,” he said. “The opportunity there to monetize something and bring revenues back into this town is something that I think is worth looking at, in addition to having a facility [to use] where Wilton’s weathers and Wilton’s winters are not getting easier or nicer.”

Lawrence also emphasized that this resource would not just be for sports, but could be used community-wide. Moreover, if the town picked a model with multiple features such as a field, a track, and exercise space, several community groups can use the resource simultaneously.

“We believe that sort of the Chelsea Piers model, which has close to a regulation field which is divisible into different pods so multiple teams can practice at once,” he said, “but it also has things that the rest of the community can use simultaneously, and that’s important.”

He added that a facility like a Chelsea Piers field house, which measures about 480 ft. by 200 ft., could include a track lane, court space, and general workout space, instead of just being a “field inside a bubble.” Having this all-in-one, indoor venue in Wilton, he said, would be a “game-changer.”

“That becomes a hub, and that becomes something that the whole community looks at as something really awesome to have especially when the weather’s bad.”

Lawrence said that building new turf or indoor field spaces has been discussed several times over the last 25 years. However, they said given the increasing demands of competitive sports and the increasing needs of the community, as well as the current high use of Wilton’s fields, could make this an opportune time to start.

In terms of costs, Lawrence could not answer any specific estimates without knowing what would “fit inside the bubble.” He said he believes square footage will be the greatest determinant of how much the space would cost.

Fitting a full field inside the dome would require around 100,000 sq. ft., he said, which would be about the size of Kristine Lilly Field. However, the square footage and expense would increase with more amenities the town would want to include, such as stands, workout or locker rooms, or tracks.

Commission member Jennifer Kendra asked if the idea was really feasible given the town’s land use and the expense.

“Conceptually, I think we’ve all been wanting something like this for many, many years. I’m hesitant in not the idea but I’m hesitant in the realities that we face,” she said. “This is not a town that supports or funds anything, this is not a community that has been largely supportive of these kinds of moves in the past.”

“Is it really realistic and at a time when we have tremendous doubt about the economic health of 2021 and beyond?” she added.

In response to member Kevin Ring‘s question about possible town locations for an indoor facility, Lawrence said that from an infrastructure and parent perspective they believe it is very important that it is located within walking distance of existing athletic facilities and accessible from the schools.

The location that currently seemed to make the most sense to them was the open space behind Comstock Community Center where the youth soccer field/youth baseball field is located, pointing to the “significantly underused parking area” above the courts, the distance from neighbors and the proximity to Comstock, which would eliminate the need for the indoor space to have utilities.

“In our view, that’s probably one of the best places to start looking hard,” he said.

It also does not have the same environmental issues that building on Allens Meadows would have because of wetlands, or flooding concerns of being near the brook, he said. They also considered the space by Middlebrook Middle School and the North Field by Kristine Lilly Field and Wilton High School, but thought the Comstock site had more advantages and fewer potential obstacles such as parking and space.

Lawrence said that much would depend on what kind of indoor structure they choose to build. Parks & Rec Director Steve Pierce said the next steps he would recommend are doing a cost/benefit analysis of the type of facility over the life of a building, as well as assessing likely maintenance needs.

Lawrence and Sherman will work with P & R Director Steve Pierce and his team to explore costs, design, location, and other details, after which, according to P&R Chair Anna Marie Bilella, the Commission will meet again to consider if the idea is worth pursuing.

COVID-19 and Winter Sports–Waiting for CT DPH 

The Commission also discussed the impact of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic on the current status of winter sports.

Along with the town, the state, and members of the CT Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC), the Commission is still waiting on more guidance from both the Connecticut Department of Public Health (DPH) and the CIAC Board of Control, the latter of which will meet Thursday to make its final decision on the winter sports season.

“I can tell you that there’s a lot of concern from a lot of people I’ve spoken to, given the increasing [COVID case] numbers going across the state right now about indoor activities, particularly indoor sports,” Pierce said.

In November, the CIAC Board of Control delayed the start of winter sports team practices until Jan. 19 after receiving CT DPH guidance, and the regular season has yet to be determined.

The town can choose to follow stricter guidelines than what the CIAC Board of Control will decide, but until then, “everything is kind of on hold,” Pierce said. Wilton’s Board of Education and health director Barry Bogle will also have a say in the town’s sports plan.

Earlier this week, the CIAC released a “fluid draft” of its 2020-2021 Winter Sports Plan taking into account the most recent CT DPH guidance.

Commission members discussed some of the conditions that guidance specified, such as mask-wearing and limiting group sizes. They acknowledged that restricting the number of participants allowed in a particular venue at one time could increase the demand for athletic facility space which, given cleaning demands, could potentially cause issues.

Limits on the number of participants could also affect a team’s ability to practice, especially for larger team sports like basketball.

The commissioners also reflected on CIAC’s stop-and-start waiting game for deciding how to move forward with the high school football season last fall, when COVID cases were declining, and how different these circumstances seem now.

“If you recall fall,” Pierce said, “that was when COVID numbers were down and you’re talking about outdoor sports. So now you’re talking about higher [case] numbers and indoor sports … and we don’t even know what’s coming from DPH because we haven’t seen anything.”

Updates–Dog Park, Track Replacement, Benches

The Commission also discussed partnering with Wilton’s Environmental Affairs Department to install more benches in town. Bilella said this was great timing with spring around the corner, and a concrete, positive action the Commission could take.

In less positive news, the Commission’s exploration of a dog park is on hold because any ideal sites would not be available to lease for an undefined amount of time. The property that was initially identified, located across from Allens Meadow, is owned by the state. Pierce explained that a representative from State Sen. Will Haskell‘s office learned the state is currently conducting a study of all state-owned properties and is not accepting any new leases until after the study is completed. The timing of that is unknown.

When asked if any town-owned properties could be potential sites for a dog park, Pierce said that the town had previously investigated this possibility, but concluded that none met the right criteria.

Pierce updated the commissioners about the WHS Track Replacement project, noting that the final quote on costs has been delayed because of a COVID issue, but it will be reviewed by town officials and First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice as soon as possible. If approved, they will move forward with the plan.

Despite the delay, Pierce believes that the project could still begin in mid-June after graduation or potentially even at the end of the sports season in May with graduation proceeding on the new blacktop.

Fiscal Year 2022 Budget

For the upcoming FY’22 budget-setting season, the Commission reviewed three Parks & Rec Department proposed budgets: the operating budget, the self-sustaining budget, and the capital budget (operating and bonded).

The proposed operating capital budget included two requests for Parks and Grounds:  a trailer to house new mowing equipment, and a dump truck to replace a 2002 truck. The proposed bonded capital budget included replacing the Middlebrook tennis courts and the stadium track replacement.

Additionally, Pierce said he is optimistic that all programs will run next year.

“We are assuming on the budget moving forward, which again our fiscal year starts July 1, we are assuming that we will have a full list of programs and a full year of activities,” Pierce said. “We are optimistic about that and we have to plan and budget for that.”

If for some reason, they could not run a particular program, there would be no expense gained or lost, as part of the self-sustaining budget. That budget covers programs that are either run by the department, co-sponsored, or contracted services.

“We manage it so we can pick up a program at a drop of a hat or if we don’t have enough participants, like this [past] summer for camp where we were light–we cut back our expenses by not having as many counselors come in, we’re not spending as much on supplies, and so on,” he said. “So self-sustaining really is a self-sustaining budget.”

The added expenses like program coordinator, computer software and insurances are covered by program profits.

The Commission also recommended that the lightning detection software–currently budgeted as a new annual operating cost–be expanded to cover all fields in town, including the Ambler Farm, Lions and Landmark fields, even though it will increase the cost. Pierce said he will discuss it with Vanderslice at his budget meeting with her Thursday, and noted that WHS officials highly endorse the idea of adding the system.

Overall, he said the department’s proposed operating budget is up 1.6%, which he said is “pretty static” in all things they can control. Most of the increases are out of their control, such as the increase in the minimum wage and salary and benefits needs.