Scores of soccer players took to the pitch at the VES Fields Sunday afternoon, too young to know that the fields complex had cleared a hurdle just days before, when the agency providing funds for the project gave its final approval.
Laura Moxham, a grants manager for the state’s Recreation and Conservation Office (RCO), toured the fields complex north of town last Friday. She noted an accessibility issue to be addressed there, but said the project looked good overall and appeared to have met the terms of the grants awarded several years ago.
“I believe the scope of the project has been completed,” she said.
Moxham’s stamp of approval provided a landmark moment for the fields project, which has had a turbulent history. After Moxham’s visit, park district General Manager Elaine Ott succintly summed up how she felt.
“Fantastic,” she said.
Since Ott stepped into her position in February, she and others at the park district have been working to secure the final $152,000 of more than $500,000 in RCO funding awarded for the project in 2008 and 2009. After several extensions, the deadline for the RCO-funded portion of the project was Sept. 30. If the district had not meet that deadline, officials said, it risked losing the remaining funds.
Following the inspection, Moxham said that as long as the district submits sufficient items for reimbursement, she believes RCO will provide the full amount outstanding. RCO dispersed roughly $38,000 in August, and a small portion of the remainder will come as soon as next week, she said. The remaining portion will likely come at the end of this year or the beginning of next, she said.
Ott said that while she is pleased that the sum of money will be coming, she had hoped for a faster timeline to help with the agency’s cash flow.
“I had anticipated $70,000 in May; $61,000 in July and another $21,000 in August,” she said.
The Vashon Park District broke ground on the fields project in 2010 and planned for a grand opening in the summer of 2011. The renovated complex was slated to include lights for at least one of the fields, permanent restrooms and a concession stand.
The project’s scope, however, was scaled down as expenses rose considerably, and many of those close to the project say the complex — which has two full-size soccer fields, a football field, two baseball fields and a small practice field — has come at a cost, both figuratively and literally.
Public discontent over the project and the five-person park district board governing it has contributed to an unusually large number of people running for three open commissioner seats, with all six candidates — including two incumbents — calling for increased transparency, public outreach and fiscal responsibility at the agency.
Park district documents show that the total cost of the project was expected to be about $1.1 million, with the district using taxpayer money to fund just $125,000 of it. The most recent financial figures, which Ott supplied last week, show that the total cost of the project to date is about $1.9 million, with the total cost to taxpayers at about $1.05 million.
The project is not done, however, and roughly $140,000 worth of work needs to be completed to close out a county clearing and grading permit, which expires in 2015, Ott said. The district also took on debt to help fund the fields — nearly $33,000 for lighting infrastructure, $40,455 for a portable restroom now in place and $400,000 via a non-voter approved bond. The district has paid more than $100,000 the last two years on those obligations, and that expense will continue for at least the next two years, according to Hilary Emmer, who is part of the district’s fields Oversight Committee, a group that formed this spring to provide a variety of project expertise to the agency.
The fields renovation, which came at a time of decreased tax revenue at the district, has critics crying foul over what they say is extremely poor management of the project and a disregard for taxpayers. On the other hand, supporters of the project, many of whom helped provide nearly 1,300 volunteer hours to help meet the Sept. 30 deadline, say the site has shaped up to be an excellent facility that provides much-needed field space for island youth — hundreds of whom participate in sports.
Janet Quimby, who chairs the Oversight Committee and previously managed contracts for the Port of Tacoma, recently conducted an analysis of the management of the project, which she found to be marked by extreme cost overruns, disregard for the laws and standards that govern public works projects and inadequate contract and documenting procedures. Through 2012, she said, the park commissioners were “shockingly unaccountable.”
“They did not do their jobs,” she said.
This year, she said, some improvements have been made, but further changes are necessary to avoid such pitfalls in the future.
Quimby also attended the recent fields inspection and reflected afterward about how money was spent, questioning if $2 million was needed to achieve what is there and if that amount of money, managed well, might have gone much further.
“I’m just sad,” she said. “What are the lost opportunities?”
David Prouse, the president of Vashon Youth Baseball & Softball (VYBS), which draws about 300 young players a year, said the club has been aware of problems with the project, but members chose to stay positive and put in many volunteer hours to help get the project done. His company, Prouse Construction, also donated hundreds of hours of labor there, he said, noting that many others lent a hand as well, from parents to coaches.
“Volunteers really stepped up in the last six months to get it done,” he said. “I am really proud of that.”
The fields turned out well, he added, and are significantly better than what was there before. The new sand-based fields seem to have better drainage, and the turf is holding up well so far, he said.
“We will get so much more use out of them on a year-to-year basis,” he added.
Hans Van Dusen, the president of the Vashon Island Soccer Club and another member of the Oversight Committee, said members of the soccer club have welcomed the renovated fields with enthusiasm.
“The families are ecstatic,” he said. “People are loving them.”
Currently, he said, 450 kids are signed up for soccer this fall, and roughly 250 kids ages 6 to 9 are using the fields for Sunday games. They recently began practicing there on weekdays as well.
Several soccer club members also contributed volunteer time at the fields, and this summer, after park district commissioners decided not to purchase a large water tank for irrigation because of financial constraints, the club bought two 5,000-gallon tanks to do the job, spending $2,500 a piece, he said. Watering in the dry season would have been insufficient without the tanks, he noted, and the club felt the tanks were an appropriate use of funds they had quietly raised to support the project.
“The turf and its condition is really important to us,” he added.
The club is also renting lights for the fields for a month, an additional $5,000 expense. Given fall’s short daylight hours, he said the fields are an “incomplete resource” without them. The club will look to the district to finish the project, he said, and will turn to club members to help with the expense.
Following her visit to the island last week, Moxham said she knows that the Vashon project went well beyond its budget, but directed questions about the cost of comparable projects to King County Parks and Recreation, which has built several fields in the Seattle area.
There, Jessica Emerson, a business development manager, said it is difficult to provide accurate comparisons because the agency has not built a complex with grass fields in nearly a decade. Many communities are turning to artificial turf, she said, which is more expensive to install but cheaper in the long run because of lower maintenance costs. One turf soccer field with lights typically costs $1.5 to $2 million, she added.
On Friday, Moxham credited Ott with getting the project to this point.
“Elaine got on board, and she was consistent, and she made it happen,” Moxham said.
Looking ahead, Ott said she is not certain how work on the project will unfold from here.
“That is up to the board,” she said.