The building of Husky Field II: How a community came together

Scott Swanson

This Friday night, Oct. 9, Sweet Home High School will hold its annual Homecoming game, hosting Junction City.

The weather, as of the beginning of this week, is predicted to be partly cloudy that evening. But unlike some former years, even if it were pouring rain, it wouldn’t have much effect on the field. There wouldn’t be puddles. The grass along the sideline wouldn’t be reduced to a muddy wallow under the feet of coaches and players.

Instead, Sweet Home fans and the visitors will feast their eyes on brand new artificial turf that is the result of one of, if not the greatest, outpourings of local benevolence and commitment to a cause in the community’s history – totaling roughly $1.1 million.

“It would probably be right up there,” said Mike Melcher, owner of a local logging firm which donated significant amounts of time and expertise to the project. Melcher has been heavily involved in a number of similar community efforts – including the construction of a new home in 2009 for a paralyzed former Husky football player whose trailer had been destroyed by a tree during a storm, and the building of Sunshine Industries’ new facility, which was completed last year.

For the Turf Project, as it was known, donations of money, equipment, time, expertise and materials came from more than 60 individuals, families and companies, nearly all of them located within the Sweet Home School District. The list reads like a Who’s Who of east Linn County’s heavy equipment-based industries – loggers, truckers, excavators, three sand and gravel companies, equipment dealers – and well over a dozen private donors.

“This community and the people in our businesses around here, I don’t know if I’ve ever been turned down when I’ve asked for something,” Melcher said. “It’s amazing, the response I get when I get involved in a project and ask business people to do things.

He said that generosity extends beyond the donations of heavy equipment and technical expertise to retail businesses that extend a line of credit.

“They say, ‘Here’s an account. You’ve got this much to spend,” he said. “When I reflect back on this, I don’t know if I’ve ever been turned down.”

The Big Idea

The idea for an artificial-turf field was born out of a concern that use of Husky Field was severely limited, said Dustin Nichol, head football coach and primary coordinator of the project.

The idea was not new. The longtime natural grass turf field, painstakingly cared for by district groundskeepers for decades, had one huge limitation: It didn’t stand up well to use in wet weather, which meant only the football team could use it. Other sports were relegated to fields in even worse condition.

“For me, honestly, it had nothing to do with football,” Nichol said of his motivation. “I saw the boys and girls soccer teams using a pit of a field (behind the high school). After the Jamboree gets done with it, we don’t have time to have it back to what it should be.

“That one-acre piece of ground was the most expensive and under-utilized piece of ground the district put money into,” he added, referring to the grass field in Husky Stadium.

He first broached the idea to put in artificial turf in 2012. The initial idea was to gather investors through a program offered by the The Community Sports Development Council. That didn’t work out, but the idea lived on.

Three people – Doug Rice, Aaron Burke and Richard Reynolds – stayed strongly committed to the idea, committing monetary donations that totaled near $100,000, Nichol said.

Cascade Timber Consulting Vice President Milt Moran, a former School Board member and longtime supporter of the school’s athletic programs, approached the school board last December and was told the district could provide $100,000 for the project from money saved to replace the track.

A committee was formed to pursue the Turf Project. Members were then-high school Principal Keith Winslow, district Business Manager Kevin Strong, retired Supt. Larry Horton, former School Board member and Moran, longtime track coach Billy Snow, Police Chief Jeff Lynn and Nichol.

Joel Keesecker, who operates Unified Insurance in Sweet Home and whose own children had competed on Husky Field in various sports, made the initial contribution of $1,000 toward the project and they were in business.

Horton wrote 15 grant requests. Moran, Strong and Lynn visited local service clubs and other local organizations. Moran became spokesman for the project and liaison with the School Board. Rice, who is Nichol’s cousin, started “beating the brush a bunch,” connecting with business acquaintances such as fellow loggers, Advanced Mechanical of Brownsville, Modern Machinery of Eugene and others to line up the equipment necessary to complete the project.

Soon after, the Emmert family signed on to provide the rock and gravel necessary to build the field.

The organizing committee arranged to have donations channeled through the Sweet Home Community Foundation. As a tax-exempt organization, the foundation could provide a conduit with tax-deductible status and the capability to accept credit cards. Its tax-exempt status also gave organizers a way to work with outside grant-funding sources, said foundation President Bob Burford.

“Things were rolling along,” Nichol said. And then the momentum stopped.

By the first of May, organizers had about half of the roughly $400,000 in finances they needed for the project, but no new money had come in.

“We were ready to shut things down,” Nichol said.

That’s when two anonymous donations – $100,000 and $10,000 materialized, breathing new life into the effort, which now needed only about $100,000 more to be home free, financially.

“That revitalized things,” Nichol said. “We decided to proceed in good faith. To me, this was the community speaking as to where they wanted to see their community developed next – a community-use facility that we can use year-round.”

By early June the Foundation had another anonymous donation, this time for $25,000. In addition. A growing number of local businesses, families and individuals had made pledges and contributions in amounts ranging from $1,000 to $30,000, the latter from Advanced Mechanical owners Steve and Patricia Schilling.

Ultimately, the Foundation collected some $224,000 in gifts and grants, channeled to the turf project.

Burford said he believes that could serve as a template for other community groups with ideas to improve conditions in Sweet Home.

“Hopefully, the Turf Project success will plant the seed for other worthy projects,” he said.

Fund-raising continued through the month of May and high school graduation ceremonies were held June 5 on the field.

The Work Begins

The project started in an office, where Udell Engineering developed a program that could be placed into computerized, laser-guided bulldozers and graders to make sure the levels of soil and gravel were accurate “within a couple hundredths of an inch,” Nichol said.

Three days later, on Monday morning, June 8, as Nichol and a group of football players he’d recruited to help out, watched, Brent Graham drove the blade of his excavator into the turf next to the south goalpost, removing the first of thousands of shovelfuls of soil. The goal posts came down. The rubber surface around the end zones was removed and the project was really under way.

Truck drivers and owners donated their rigs and their weekends to hauling dirt and gravel loaded, unloaded and spread by heavy equipment operators. Hand laborers dug ditches, spread gravel, cleaned up behind the equipment. Surveyors and engineers donated their time and expertise to make sure the field was laid out correctly – to exacting specifications.

“Everybody who came in volunteered,” Melcher said. “They were not being paid.”

Nichol and fellow project managers Melcher and Jason Armstrong were on site throughout the summer – supervising and coordinating the removal of approximately 7,000 cubic yards of topsoil – about 700 10-yard dump truck loads and the steps in the process that followed. Cascade Timber Consultants, Joe Graville, Tom Hyer, Liberty Rock, Melcher Logging, Ram Trucking and Rice Logging donated the use of trucks and operators to drive them – some even during the work week.

“We had anywhere from four to seven trucks pulling loads out there,” Nichol said. “We moved that much dirt in a week.”

Volunteers dug drainage ditches and installed pipe, then rolled out geotextile fabric on top of some 400 loads of gravel underlayment of various sizes that the same group of truckers delivered.

“When we needed kids to come down there, football and soccer and track kids showed up,” Nichol said. “We had football players down there putting in the drain, reading the laser to determine the fall and slope. They did a great job.”

When some promised help didn’t show, Armstrong contacted Pacific Excavation of Millersburg, which specializes in “challenging” civil engineering projects. The company provided a laser-guided bulldozer and operator, which graded the dirt and infrastructure to the exact specifications the plan called for.

“They came through and pushed it out for us, in a nine- or 10-hour day,” Nichol said.

Graham was a major contributor, digging holes and ditches, removing earth and spreading gravel with an excavator and a grader.

“Brent Graham spent six weeks, seven days a week, eight to 16 hours a day,” Nichol said. “He took away from from his family and his business. A lot of this was Greek to me, moving dirt and everything. He was invaluable.”

Some help also came from Jim Cota, who was a key player in the installation of the tennis court project in 2009, an effort that Horton engineered.

A major key to the turf project’s success was getting the field’s drainage system and gravel underlayment specifications configured correctly.

“A lot of people heard we were doing this and were laughing,” Melcher said. “There were some tight grading specs. The whole thing was a learning process.

“I think one thing that contributed to the success of the project was us being a little scared of not doing it right, going slow and asking questions and doing it right so we didn’t have to go back and re-do it.”

Udell Engineering surveyors repeatedly showed up to monitor the measurements on the site, and Doug Rice contacted Kerry Kuenzi at K&E Excavation of Salem, which specializes in sports stadiums among other large civil engineering projects. K&E provided a laser-guided grader with an operator and a man on the ground, Nichol said, to level the 14 inches of base and top rock.

“What put it over the top was the quality work of Pacific and K&E,” Nichol said. “They precisely completed the finish grade almost to perfection. Their laser system got us close.

“With the tolerances that field turf requires, there’s no way you could do that with a grader and hubs (stakes used by surveyors to mark grading requirements). You’d have to put stakes every five feet instead of 50 feet. The finish was nothing like finishing a logging road.”

It was a success.

FieldTurf personnel told the Sweet Home team “they wished they could pick this field up and take it elsewhere and show them how it’s done,” Melcher said.

Nichol said FieldTurf experts told him “ours was in the top three of the best they’d ever seen when they rolled up to it. They were excited.”

Following the Oregon Jamboree, during the second week of August a crew from Wilsonville-based FieldTurf rolled out brand new artificial turf on the gravel surface, which had been compacted by rollers donated by local companies and driven by volunteers, one of whom was the 90-year-old Hyer, who spent days at the site, operating rollers and other heavy equipment.

Rice Logging and Ram Trucking donated trucks and drivers to haul more than 300 1-ton bags of silica sand and cryogenic rubber infill for the field from the Portland area to Sweet Home.

The timing of the project made it even more of a cost for donors, Melcher noted.

“It was a dedicated commitment for all of us for this time of year, both to be able to pull away and stick to it,” he said. “This was our busiest time of year.”

Until that point, the project had stayed right on schedule, but complications arose as the planned first use of the field, a girls soccer game on Sept. 2, neared.

The Track Goes Down

One of the primary motivations for the timing of the new field turf was the condition of the track in Husky Stadium, which had been laid in 2002 and had an expected 10-year lifespan.

When it came time to lay the new track, current and retired track coaches Billy Snow and Jim Kistner, and Alan Temple took over supervision of the project as the summer vacation wound down.

Snow, the track coach, said that the facility “started deteriorating really quickly” last spring.

“There was a lot of wear and tear that cropped up really quick.”

Thankfully, he said, the School Board had had the foresight in 2002 to set aside money each year to replace the track, which is what gave the whole project its initial impetus.

“We had the money, which was a huge, huge help to the project.”

After the installation of the artificial turf was completed, Snow and retired track coach Alan Temple spent 20 hours power-washing the old track so the new surface could be laid on top of it.

“It was quite the job,” Snow said. “Thank goodness, Dustin had us set up with a big truck with two big commercial sprayers. We did every square inch of the track. Sand, pellets, everything they couldn’t get off with the machines they were using. There was a lot of ground-in dirt from the equipment.”

Rainfall delayed some facets of the operation and Beynon Sports, a company that installs running facilities all over the world, had its local crew installing tracks all across the Northwest.

“Those workers were great, but they were a little bit behind schedule,” Snow said. “It wasn’t their fault. They were just following where the company told them to go. There were so many jobs stacked up, it was a domino effect.”

Although the project ended up being completed about 10 days late, Beynon got the competition-quality, polyurethane surface laid by early September – too late for the planned unveiling of the new facility on Sept. 2, but worth the wait, Snow said.

Not only did the track get a brand-new surface, but its lines and marks were completely redone.

“They told us they could paint anything we wanted for the price they were charging us,” Snow said. “Alan went around and did a whole bunch of research on different tracks. We took pictures of the University of Oregon track, Willamette University’s and Lebanon’s, and we tried to take advantage of the best ideas.”

They avoided some “shortcuts” that apparently occurred when the track was painted in 2002 and made a lot of improvements, he said. The runways for jumps now have distances marked along the sides so competitors don’t need to bring tape measures to establish their starting points. Positions for hurdles and various distances are clearly designated on the track, eliminating some poorly drawn lines on the old track that often confused young runners. The backstretch now contains marked sections where sprinters and hurdlers can drill, opening up opportunities for improved use of the facility.

“We’re really happy with the way things turned out,” Snow said. “It’s pretty unique. Painting-wise, we’ve got quite a facility there.”

The Finish Line

The final step in the process was a new scoreboard, financed with donations that exceeded what was needed to get the field laid. Advanced Mechanical and Rice Logging helped with the infrastucture work for the scoreboard, which is about twice the size of the old one and can be used for football, soccer and track.

Although Nichol and district administrators wanted to make a statement by having the first contest on the new field be a soccer game, the freshman football team was actually the first to play on the field, in a Sept. 14 game.

The final out-of-pocket cost, not counting in-kind donations for the turf portion of the project, is $441,448, according to Strong. He noted that schools that choose to have the entire project done for them typically pay about $1 million. For example, St. Helens had a new field and track installed this summer for $1,144,133 according to the Portland Tribune.

Nichol said the fact that the district has been willing to allow contributors to pledge donations over time was key.

“The biggest selling point to get monetary donations was the district’s willingness to allow donors to pledge over a five-year period of time and front the loan, basically,” he said. “It’s tough for a small business to pick up a $30,000 donation in one year. Over five years, that’s doable.”

Also, he said, organizers were “above-board.”

“Everything is covered, even the scoreboard. We told people as they were donating money, ‘The turf is covered. Your money will go to…’”

Strong said there are some remaining projects that need to be completed, including finishing touches to the sound system, landscaping, a new Husky Stadium sign and siding for the press box. The Community Foundation will continue to accept donations for the project through the end of October. Contributors of more than $250 will be recognized on a permanent plaque that will be installed near the facility’s main entrance.

The Sweet Home project, under the direction of Nichol – who literally slept at the site for much of the summer, and the other supervisors, also proceeded more smoothly than similar projects, more than one participant noted.

West Albany, for instance, also installed a new field this summer, but had to remove 6 inches of gravel before it could install its turf because the measurements were off, Melcher noted. Last week, its facility was still under construction, Snow said.

Horton said that, although many individuals contributed substantially to the project, the fact that kids of all ages are using the facility – nearly every day – is due to Nichol’s leadership.

“Dustin has put his heart and soul into this,” Horton said. “He deserves so much credit for getting so many of his family and community members involved in this. He put in the labor that was necessary to make it happen, as well as the cheerleading and coordination.”

Nichol emphasized that the field wouldn’t have happened without the contributions from everyone involved.

“If you take any one piece of this puzzle out of this, everything falls apart,” he said. “The district contributes $100,000 and the people see that and they realize the importance of in-kind donations. If anything’s missing, the wheels fall off the bus.”

The Facility For All

“I think the finished product is wonderful,” Nichol said, noting that in the first week it was available for use, four football games and three soccer games were played on Husky field – half as many in one week as it was used for all season last year. That pace of use has continued.

“That was my goal, the driving force behind my efforts – to try to get it so more people could utilize that facility, more opportunities for kids, getting them off the stinking Internet and games and getting them outside to run, build some cardio.

“I think we have a quality facility that we should be proud of. Now I hope the community will use it and not abuse it – give it the respect it deserves.”

Horton said he drove down 22nd Avenue last week and saw Husky Field in the morning sun. The bright green field gleamed in the light and he said he felt deep satisfaction as he looked at the brand new white soccer goals stationed under brand new football goalposts.

“I was happy,” he said. “Last week I turned in the final report for the Siletz Tribe, for the charitable donation they made. It had photos of what we’d done. It’s a wonderful thing for Sweet Home. I think, in the long run, it will be the long run, it will be a real benefit, a real source of pride. This was truly a community effort.

“I’m really proud of our community – again.”