Cambria Heights School District could move football games

PATTON – A stalemate between Borough Council and the Cambria Heights School District could spell the end of Friday Night Lights in Patton, as school officials look to pull out of a 50-year lease agreement and move all football games to district grounds.

Athletic Director Tom Boyle said during a September school board meeting that negotiations had been under way for months to turn the field’s deed over to the district but are now “dead in the water.”

School solicitor Patrick Fanelli said he was alerted that Borough Council had taken action a few months ago to give the property to the school and that the two groups’ solicitors were to work out the details.

“I prepared a deed and did some of the work” related to the property transfer, Fanelli said, but when he called the borough solicitor, Fanelli said he was told, “‘No, the board’s not interested in donating the property.'”

“Somewhere there, there’s either a change of position or a miscommunication,” he added.

But Patton Mayor Stephen Bakajza said no such action was ever taken by council.

“I don’t know where that came from,” he said. “There was never, ever a vote taken [to give the field to the school].”

A huge investment

As part of a 2004 feasibility study commissioned by the school, engineers drew up a cost comparison of how much the district would need to spend to make improvements to the Patton field or to relocate football games to the Cambria Heights High School using a modified soccer field constructed around 2000.

Superintendent Michael Strasser said the data show that moving games to the school would save money in the long run.

The largest ticket item would be installation of grandstands at $310,000. Lighting would cost $140,000; locker rooms, $60,000; and ticket booths and a concession building, $40,000.

The field also would need about $12,000 in repair, with another $30,000 needed to remove existing structures to be replaced with new ones.

That brings the total just shy of $600,000, although Strasser said costs surely have gone up in the eight years since the study was completed.

Athletic Director Tom Boyle told the school board last month that material costs for repairing damage to the Patton field’s wooden bleachers would exceed $60,000, but Strasser said the feasibility study shows repairing the bleachers probably wouldn’t be good enough.

“We are the only team in the Laurel Highlands [Athletic Conference] that still has wooden bleachers,” he said, and repairing the wooden ones rather than replacing them “probably wouldn’t be the best solution.”

By comparison, the study showed that making changes to the high school’s soccer field would cost almost $170,000 less, at a final ticket price of $423,000.

The lion’s share of that cost would be adding lighting for $140,000 and repairing the existing field and upgrading its drainage system for $110,000. Boyle noted that, while the soccer field is big enough, the track team’s sandpit would need to be moved as part of the construction.

He also said the school could get by with using portable lighting for a few years if games were moved. Using data from Conemaugh Valley School District, Strasser said Cambria Heights could get by with renting eight portable units, at a cost of $85 each per game, for a few years.

Additional costs for transforming the soccer field would include repairing fencing and installing walkways for $80,000, with another $33,000 needed to repair the track.

Odds and ends like relocating the stadium’s sound system and adding ticketing and concession buildings would cost another $45,000.

The study also included $15,000 for installation of a new scoreboard, but Strasser said the school could relocate a recently purchased scoreboard instead.

However, Strasser noted, the Patton field repairs wouldn’t need to be made all at once, while many of the district field repairs would need to be done before the school could host a game.

“At the field downtown, obviously the bleachers” and access for the disabled is a priority, he said.

“But the field house has been in existence, from what I can gather, since the 50s,” he said, and teams have to dress for games at the high school and then get bused to the Patton field. After a game, they have to be bused back to use the showers.

“We have a little bit of an advantage out here,” he said.

Lease [dis]agreement

Strasser said while he would hate to leave the downtown field, the school board doesn’t like the idea of paying for improvements when the district doesn’t own the field.

School board member Paul Baran said at September’s board meeting that he and others had been working for a long time to gain ownership of the field.

“I don’t know what Patton Borough gains by holding out,” he said.

Others said it is unfair to use taxpayer dollars on property not belonging to the district.

“If we don’t own it … that money could be invested out here,” Strasser said.

In a letter dated Oct. 8, borough councilmen responded to some of the school board’s comments, accusing directors of violating terms of the lease agreement by letting the field fall into disrepair.

“If the stadium is in need of repair, the school board is the sole entity contractually obligated to perform those repairs,” it reads. “The school board only has itself to blame for its failure to comply with the lease.”

Furthermore, the letter states that, given the state of the field, district ownership is no guarantee that future repairs will be made.

“There is no guarantee that the school board will maintain the facility if it has no contractual requirement to do so,” it reads.

In closing, the letter states that the board “never intended to honor its obligations identified in the written lease to maintain the stadium, as it promised it would do” under the 50-year lease ending in 2055.

Bakajza said there is no reason why the borough should give up one of its major assets to the school, especially if the school didn’t want to stand by its lease.

‘I like it here’

“I bet fewer people would go” if the field was moved, said Brian Barckley, whose 16-year-old son plays junior varsity football for Cambria Heights.

“I like it down here. I think it’s good,” he said. “I know a lot of people walk down.”

The effect on local businesses, however, is less certain.

Darrell Williams, who co-manages The Thirsty Dawg Taverne along Magee Avenue, said business picks up immediately after the games and said he imagines that people coming back into town after a football game at the high school would remain loyal customers.

“We have a pretty good relationship with the school,” he said. ” And it’s only a mile outside of town.”

Williams also said he wouldn’t have a problem with the games moving and the district making more use of its soccer field.

Ninth-grade student Rebecca Haddock, however, said it would impact students and residents.

“We like going to the games,” she said. “I want them to stay here. It would be too far to walk.”

Strasser said there would not be enough time to make the switch by the end of the 2013 football season, and probably not even by next year – but a decision will have to be made soon.

He said he doesn’t want to give up the excitement of Friday night football in town, but without ownership the district likely won’t put any more work into, or get much more use out of, the Patton stadium.

“If we would leave the Patton stadium, which I would hate to do … we would most likely leave completely. Our [junior varsity] baseball plays in Carrolltown. We could move up to there,” he said.

“It would be done,” he added.

Mirror Staff Writer Kelly Cernetich is at 946-7520.