Badly needed tennis courts, costing as much as 200,000 dollars, will come before any turf field facilities can be constructed in St. Helens

by: JOHN WILLIAM HOWARD - St. Helens senior Madison Kaplan returns a serve during the Lions' match against Sandy on April 2. The tennis courts have been in poor repair for 'six or seven years' according to the boosters, and are scheduled to be replaced.For most who attend athletic events at St. Helens High School, the booster club doesn't seem to be more than a group of people who wear matching hats, work in the concession stands and hold a few fundraisers each year. They're largely in the background, and though fans take advantage of the club's commitments on a regular basis, few have a strong understanding of exactly how large a contribution they're enjoying.

The St. Helens Sports Booster Club will be hosting their 15th annual auction and dance on April 26 at the Columbia County Fairgrounds at 5 p.m. For the club members and the school, it's far more than a simple fundraiser with the goal of purchasing a new water cooler or paying for post-game snacks.

This year, the club has a sizable project on their hands. They want to rebuild the aging tennis facilities at the high school. The courts, which are used by high school teams, physical education classes and the community as a whole, have grown increasingly dilapidated over the last seven to eight years, according to Club President Bert Mueller. Plucking weeds from cracks in the surface and an ever-sloping court have become a big enough problem that it can't even be fixed with a simple resurfacing effort.

Now, things will be taken a step further. The entire surface – including the concrete underneath the courts themselves – will be torn up and used as a base for the new surfaces. The bigger project has upped the cost considerably, but the club has run into yet another issue.

Of the three groups of people that use the courts, the school, sports teams and the city, only two are in the possible position of donating money toward the project. The school district doesn't have the means to support new tennis courts, and while the city “may be interested” in contributing funds, the $190,000 price tag is sizable for an organization like the boosters, who raise typically less than $60,000 in a year and are forced to split their funds between several sports-related projects.

Grants are available for courts such as the club is interested in, but according to Mueller, the grants won't be given until around half of the funds have already been raised. That means the club – and whomever else chooses to step up to the plate – will be on the hook for nearly $100,000, depending on the price of rebuilding the current facilities.

It's not as though it hasn't been done, and it isn't the largest item on the wish-list. A few years ago the booster club heavily financed the construction of a new weight room at the high school, greatly improving the weight facilities that benefit the sports teams and P.E. classes alike. The club raised $80,000 before the school district kicked in $120,000 of their own in the latter stages of the planning.

This time around, the club isn't likely to get the district's support. In addition to a state-wide money crunch, the school district is focusing (with the booster's approval) on reinstating middle school sports, which were discontinued several years back. This spring, the turnout for middle school track and field has been nearly as high as the high school levels, and the hope is that strength at the middle school level will supplement club sports teams as feeder programs for the high school athletic department.

Plans for turf

Though the tennis courts may not get the same level of attention the football and soccer field garners, there's a reason the tennis improvements are going first. In recent years, the public support for turf on the high school fields has risen, especially for the multi-use field inside the track.

Several coaches have even expressed frustration at having to share the field during the fall season, and not because of time constraints. Anyone who has played on the field since it was renovated to allow soccer in the early 2000s can attest to the general sodden quality it takes on once the season reaches into late October and November. The more teams who use it for practices, including both boys' and girls' soccer, junior varsity football and the varsity football program, the more torn up it becomes, resulting in several games being moved to a more usable surface this last season.

Add in the fact that nearly every member of the Northwest Oregon Conference has an artificial turf field, including massive facilities at Sandy and Liberty high schools, and it's become a no-brainer for the booster club: it's time for St. Helens to pony up.

That's where the wrench gets thrown into the mix. The cost of putting in artificial turf can reach over 1 million dollars, more than five times the amount needed to rebuild the tennis courts. According to Mueller, once efforts start rolling for the addition of a turf field, everything else will have to fall by the wayside simply due to the magnitude of the undertaking.

For now, it's been put on the back-burner, but not taken off the stove. The booster club will be selling additional advertising around the current facilities, including above the fences facing the parking lot, and updating the advertising inside the grandstand. They'll also continue running the concessions at school events, for which they are under contract, and will rely on their Hood to Coast fundraiser along with the “Lite Up The Nite” auction event on April 26, which is their largest fundraiser of the year.

In future years, even with the boosters funneling every penny of their fundraising efforts toward a turf project, Mueller said it will take far more than the club is able to contribute and will need a partnership with several other groups in order to be a possibility. With their current numbers in mind, it would take 20 years or more of saving in order to afford such a construction, ignoring year-to-year improvements and updating gear and technology like the new iPads. The track will also need attention in the coming years, according to track head coach Gerry Tinkle, and the club is working on starting an endowment fund.

Possible partnerships, other than the school district itself, are varied. Several schools in the greater Portland area have picked up corporate sponsors to improve facilities, including a Nike-sponsored turf field at Roosevelt High School. Sandy's 93 million multi-sport, multi-use mega-plex was funded by a massive bond that build new football, soccer, baseball and softball fields.

There are also local possibilities, including a partnership with FC Columbia County, the up-and-coming soccer club which draws players from Scappoose and St. Helens, which has discussed plans to build a turf facility in the general community.

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