Amherst Regional track project heads to bid, though money still short

The Amherst Regional School Committee last week gave approval to seek bids for a long-desired overhaul of track and field at the high school.

The Amherst Regional School Committee last week gave approval to seek bids for a long-desired overhaul of track and field at the high school. gazette file photo

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 07-05-2024 7:39 PM

AMHERST — While a preferred $3.36 million overhaul of the track and field at Amherst Regional High School remains $932,175 short of what is needed to begin the work, the Regional School Committee is supporting putting the project out to bid, with much of the funding gap to be made up by adding certain aspects at a later time.

With the possibility of asking for more Community Preservation Act funding from the four member towns, after a $756,160 request for a “gift” from the Amherst Town Council was turned down, the committee recently voted unanimously to pursue hiring a contractor to begin construction on the track and field in June 2025, acting on a recommendation from interim Superintendent Douglas Slaughter.

Slaughter said there are some risks in going out to bid, but he is comfortable enough that what is being called the 3C design can be done with the money in hand. That design includes a new eight-lane track, rebuilding an interior grass field to international soccer specifications, and reorienting to north-south from east-west direction.

That was among several concepts put together by SLR Consulting of Agawam, which offered plans at various price points to rehabilitate the site. The poor condition of the track has meant the high school has been unable to host home track meets since 2018, and the playing field poses risks of injury to student athletes.

“The short story is I think we can do 3C,” Slaughter said. “Moving ahead now with 3C gives clear guidance to our designers and we’ve got a few steps we can take in the meantime to secure more funding.”

Slaughter said school officials could also dip into the capital stabilization fund for the district to supplement whatever additional money comes from CPA.

There are a series of “add alternates” totaling $676,000, including $350,000 for athletic field lighting, $90,000 for curbs and sidewalks along Mattoon Street, $75,000 for ball safety netting and $40,000 for a concrete bleacher pad. Slaughter said the add alternates don’t cover the entire gap, but would get the project most of the way there.

“Although there is risk associated with moving forward with a design that lacks full funding of the construction, we have several options that will allow us to move forward with flexibility as we secure more funding,” he wrote in a memo. “My recommendation is to proceed with the design of Option 3C inclusive of a structured bidding and construction process to allow for funding to be secured over time.”

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The vote came with applause, as it culminates a lengthy process that has included significant debate about the interior playing field using a synthetic surface and concerns about PFAS, or forever chemical contamination. There has also been a fundraising campaign from the Hurricane Boosters, though that was largely contingent on an artifical turf surface.

The track is seen as a partnership with Amherst and part of a larger project in which Assistant Town Manager David Ziomek said the school gets two fields, both in the north-south configuration.

Ziomek said there will need to be a memorandum of agreement that will outline the responsibilities for the town and schools to preserve the site, as the town’s Department of Public Works does maintenance.

“This is a huge investment for the town and for the region, it’s a joint project, it will be on a regional land, but we’ll get it to the finish line,” Ziomek said.

Amherst representative Deb Leonard said her priorities have been getting the new track, a safe field and a north-south orientation, but she is concerned that the same situation of a deteriorating field will occur again.

Because not using artificial turf there will be worries about intensity of use, Slaughter said. “The critical question for the new field is management of playable hours,” he said.

Amherst representative Jennifer Shiao, who made the motion to support seeking bids, said Slaughter, who has returned to his role as finance director, should submit requests for Community Preservation Act funding from the four towns as soon as possible, even if outside the funding timeline.

But Shutesbury representative Anna Heard cautioned that the smaller towns have limited ability to provide more financial support.

“I would be careful about over-asking and not being able to get the money because I think everybody realizes the fiscal situation is tight everywhere,” Heard said.