By Michael Popke, Contributing Writer
If ever an outdoor athletic facility needed an extreme makeover, it was Irvington High School’s (N.J.) football field and track — if you could even call the cracked oval slab of asphalt overgrown with weeds a “track.” Drainage problems transformed the grass football field into a muddy battleground, and the tight, land-locked urban setting left little room for expansion.
“It was the laughing stock of the Super Essex Conference,” said Joe Perello, Vice President and Principal at SUBURBAN CONSULTING ENGINEERS, INC., (SCE) in Mt. Arlington, N.J., the firm that designed most of the recently revamped athletic facilities at Irvington High. “The difference is amazing between what was there and what’s there now.”
In November, after nearly six months of site labor, Irvington Public Schools finally cashed in on years of good intentions. Matthews Field reopened with a new synthetic turf and larger drain pipes, a new scoreboard with video display, new ADA-compliant home-team bleachers and a press box, an expanded concessions stand, upgraded restrooms and, for the first time, lights.
No longer do high-jump mats need to be set up in a parking lot, and the pole-vault and sand-pit areas are safer than ever. The running oval, which had been decommissioned for years, was slightly expanded and is now striped for 400 meters with six lanes. The eye-catching, bright blue rubber track represents the school’s Blue Knights nickname. In fact, the blue theme has been carried proudly throughout the facility, reaching beyond the chain-link fence to the back exterior of the otherwise plain, beige-brick school that abuts the field.
The $2.9 million renovation project had been on the district’s to-do list for as many as 20 years, according to Athletic Director Gerhard Sanchez. Repeated attempts to fund repairs never seemed to work out.
Perello recalls school board president Anthony Vauss reaching out to famous alums, including professional athletes, musicians and actors for assistance. Vauss also explored a potential partnership with solar-energy provider Energy in the Bank in East Stroudsburg, Pa.
For past projects, in exchange for allowing energy in the bank to utilize school buildings to generate solar power, school districts received low electricity rates and funding for capital projects. The complicated process involves rebates and solar renewable energy certificates and is reliant on the price of solar energy. When that price went down, the Energy in the Bank deal “fell apart,” said Obi Agudosi, Senior Vice President and Principal at DMR Architects, the District’s architecture firm based in Hasbrouck Heights, N.J.
“It’s really a difficult thing to work out,” said Perello, who was involved in the solar-deal negotiations, which ultimately would have placed solar panels on approximately 17 district buildings in the hopes of generating $4.5 to $5 million.
“On paper, it looked good,” Sanchez added. “It didn’t cut into any resources, and it would have provided all the money we needed. It just never came to fruition. Eventually, the school board decided they had to get it done.”
But how did the board, overseeing a district that receives most of its money from a state that didn’t have any more money to give, afford to renovate on its own with no public or private financial assistance? By allocating funds left over from other projects that had come in under budget, Perello said.
“This was not a priority in terms of things that needed to be done,” Agudosi said, suggesting there are more pressing maintenance and upkeep issues at Irvington High than a renovated football field and track. “The school itself needs a lot of work.”
Even though cobbling together a little excess budget money from here and there didn’t provide enough funding to expand the home-team seating capacity from 1,400 to 2,000, replace the old visiting-team bleachers and build a new concessions stand, the renovation has been enough to re-energize this township of 54,000 in northeast New Jersey, just miles from Newark. The unemployment rate in Irvington reached 12.3 percent last summer. But now the district is doing what it can to plan ahead and raise additional funds by selling donor bricks, Perello said.
Despite the way things turned out, this project had its challenges — including what to do with displaced teams and physical education classes. For example, the varsity, junior varsity and freshman football teams, collectively involving about 100 kids for the 2013 season, relocated to a field with no lights two miles from Irvington High. Players were responsible for transporting themselves and their gear before practices, which meant most of them walked. After practices, the district provided buses to take each player home, and a storage area near the field housed large pieces of equipment.
Similarly, physical education classes increasingly relied on indoor activities, the track teams were forced to run through the often-dangerous neighborhood streets surrounding the school (prompting Perello to suggest the track team was more like a cross-country team) and the soccer team was forced to find new fields.
Given the logistics involved in even a confined renovation project like the one in Irvington, it’s critical to involve representatives from every school and district department that will have a role in overseeing and operating the improved facilities. For Sanchez, that list included coaches, custodians, district and school administrators, school board members and others.
The process wasn’t always easy, but Sanchez is looking forward to seeing everything pay off this spring, when the Blue Knights boys and girls runners take to a track unlike any Irvington has ever owned. And even though the football team last season lost its few home games on the new field— including the first-ever night game at Irvington High — Sanchez remains upbeat.
“Getting something nice in town is big,” he said.
“At times, it seemed like an impossible project,” Agudosi admitted. “But this is an example of a project that is brought to reality because of the dedication and sheer willingness of the school district and school board.”
“Now there’s a lot more interest at the school in football, soccer and track,” Perello added. “The community is behind the facility, and Pop Warner teams and other youth leagues play out there when it’s not being used by the school. Irvington doesn’t have a whole lot, and they’ve never had anything like this happen.”