Franklin County considering artificial turf June 05 2014

here was a lone groundskeeper weaving between the wandering, watery arms of the sprinkler system at Cy Dillon Stadium on Thursday.

Elton Law Jr. was beginning to prepare Fred Brown Field, at Franklin County High School, for the graduation ceremony set to be held there today. With a can of spray paint, he marked off points along the irrigation system that shouldn’t be punctured with any of the stage equipment — a miscue that would certainly end the field’s abilities to host the ceremony.

Even his efforts, though, may not be enough. That’s why, each year, as a stage and a tent and an army of chairs are deployed on the field before graduation, an identical effort is waged inside, in the school’s gym. Significant rainfall in the two to three days prior to graduation could end the field’s chance to play host, even if it’s bright and sunny when “Pomp and Circumstance” is played.

“They’ll set up the stadium with a gazillion chairs,” said Bradley Lang, the high school’s junior varsity soccer coach. “And then they’ll do the exact same thing in the gym.”

Lang is part of a committee of parents and coaches interested in the future of Franklin County High School athletics that has come together to voice concerns about the field. Over the past few weeks, this committee has been gathering signatures on a petition aimed at installing turf in the stadium.

A synthetic surface, they say, would allow Franklin County to keep up with the contemporary pace of high school sports and the commerce that can surround them.

Graduation will be their first chance to come face-to-face with a large group of the stakeholders — students, student-athletes, local business owners. Don Barber, who started Franklin County’s lacrosse program alongside his wife, is one of the committee members leading the push, which they plan to take to the school board next month.

“I think very few people realize how little we use this field,” Barber said.

Barber said the field currently holds about 100 events per year, a designation that includes practices, games and other marks on the calendar, such as band events that can come with noticeable economic windfalls for the county. Other high schools in the Roanoke area, such as Salem High School and Roanoke’s Patrick Henry High School, use their fields more than 300 times a year, according to the committee.

The limitations in Franklin County, they say, are the unfortunate reality of a natural grass field.

The groundskeeper could do nothing about the churning gray skies overhead Thursday, no way to tell whether they would send the field into a muddy period of unsuitability or spare it, allowing it to host a send-off for the students who have spent four years competing between its boundaries or cheering from its sidelines.

It’s not a new development, and there’s nothing wrong with the close-trimmed grass that fills the area between two concrete grandstands behind the state’s largest high school west of Richmond, but the demands placed upon it have grown more rugged and more numerous, while that particular rectangle of earth has simply grown tired.

“We have to protect our field,” Barber said. “If we overuse it, we’ll lose it.”

The current campaign began after a conversation with Chris Jones, the high school’s varsity football coach. County officials considered replacing the field with turf in 2010, at which point the project was in the five-year capital plan. But they decided against it because of budgetary concerns, upgrading only the nearby track and field areas.

Money will again be a hurdle, Barber admits. In preparing for the campaign, the committee solicited five estimates — “ballpark figures,” he quipped — for the project. It will likely cost about $800,000, a price tag similar to the one that scared off officials five years ago.

But the committee, Lang said, hopes to emphasize the savings the county could see in maintenance costs. Law, the groundskeeper who has been at the school for 12 years, noted the difference in keeping up with a synthetic field.

“Turf would mean no irrigation, no mowing, no paint, and no insects to worry about,” he said.

And, of course, rain wouldn’t end hopes of playing a game, as it did so often for Lang’s JV soccer team last season.

“We were more of an indoor soccer team,” he said, “Just because it was bad weather.”

Barber also touted the flip side of the evolution that has strained the field. While many high school sports are now year-round commitments — thanks to a VHSL rule change — they are also constant opportunities to lure out-of-town competitors, who will eat in Rocky Mount restaurants and sometimes stay in local hotels.

In contrast, Barber said, Franklin County athletes often shuttle to Roanoke-area schools for out-of-season practices and tournaments.

“It’s a lot of money they’re generating,” he said of those out-of-town events. “We can do a lot of them — the band competitions, youth programs, sandlot football fundraisers. We’re missing out. We just don’t get the number of events, and we can’t.”