August 15, 2012 - "If we don't raise the funds . . . they could come after our homes."
If the community doesn’t pay for the synthetic blue turf field behind them at Oxford stadium, these men will have to. Pictured (from left): Oxford football boosters Randy Reason, Dan D’Alessandro, Jim Reis and Ron Davis. Bill Keenist not pictured. Photo by Lance Farrell. (click for larger version)
Another wrinkle in the tale of the turf was revealed with these words when Oxford School Board Trustee Jim Reis went on television July 7 to give Oxford residents a glimpse of what's been swept under their famous blue rug.
Reis explained in a local TV news report how he, school board secretary William Keenist, Oxford Parks and Recreation Director Ron Davis and Oxford athletic boosters Randy Reason and Daniel D'Alessandro had promised to compensate AstroTurf should blue turf fundraising efforts come up short.
In the year since the deal was inked with AstroTurf, Reis and company have paid $100,000, leaving the five with an outstanding debt of $300,000. Payment is expected in about 15 days.
Reis and company are now calling on anybody "who believes in the turf project to make a donation" to help defray the costs they incurred. Donors who fork over $1,000 will see their names embossed on a brass plaque to be mounted near the blue turf.
According to Superintendent Dr. William Skilling, there is also "a possibility that naming rights to the field could be included" with a donation, though "naming rights would not provide ownership or usage rights." Visit www.oxfordboosters.com for more information on donating to the turf project.
More and more donors are stepping forward, Reis said. On Aug. 21, the 24th Street Sports Tavern in Oxford will host a fundraiser from 4 - 9 p.m. Little Caesars Pizza has agreed to donate a percentage of their profits from sales on Aug. 28. McDonald's also plans to donate the majority of their day's sales on Sept. 18.
So how did Reis and company get to this point? "We were one of the last schools in Oakland County to get a synthetic turf field," Reis explained, "and . . . with all the expansion of every kind of program—lacrosse, soccer—you have to have turf." The reliance on traditional grass playing surfaces "totally limited the kind of opportunities we're trying to give," Reis insisted.
Athletic Director Mike Watson confirmed the increase in usage and lowered maintenance costs that Reis alluded to. Watson said there are "literally hundreds of uses more than there used to be." He's seen "more marching band practices out there, . . . entire seasons of JV soccer practices for boys and girls, whereas we didn't before." In Watson's estimation, since the turf has been installed "we're probably close to 500" uses; previously, the field only allowed 64 uses per year.
Compelled by this reasoning, the Oxford School Board began discussions about bringing turf to the district. Efforts to secure public funding for the blue turf were denied by voters in February 2009 and again in November of that year,. In light of this, private sources were sought for the rejected turf initiative.
Later in 2009, negotiations were started with a Pennsylvania-based turf provider, ProGrass LLC, now identified as the anonymous private investor behind the turf project. According to Reis, ProGrass was willing to lease the turf without conditions for five years, but wanted their identity kept confidential for fear of raised expectations from other potential clients. "They are a national company;" explained Ron Davis. "They don't want it out (there) that they're helping this little town underwrite this project."
Reis and the others felt so confident in their relationship with ProGrass that they agreed, without a binding contract from ProGrass, to donate the field to Oxford Community Schools in January 2011. The Oxford School board gladly accepted.
According to Reis, negotiations were proceeding on schedule for the opening of the 2011 fall football season when, at the 12th hour, ProGrass backed out.
ProGrass "told us 'all right, let's move ahead with this, let's get it going,' so we went to the school board and made the donation," Reis said. "Well, we went from December of 2010 when they agreed to do this, all the way up through the spring; . . .they come up from Pennsylvania and meet us at a restaurant and totally back out of their deal."
"The field is torn up, it's all ready for turf, ready to go," Reis continued. "They're still spinning their wheels and then they tell us they're not going to do that deal. Now, it's a contract with interest -- (a) big contract and monthly payments."
Davis backed up Reis' account of ProGrass's untimely withdrawal. "It's the 12th hour--we've got three months and we've got to play a game on it. What are we supposed to do at that time?"
It was too late to stop the turf project, evidently, as Oxford Schools had already awarded a contract for a so-called "dynamic" stone base necessary for synthetic turf installations. The dynamic stone base is made up of crushed limestone that compacts well and allows for slow drainage.
As Midwest Landscape Group President Bruce Kilmer put it, "We were contracted, right out of the gate, to put the dynamic base down. When we got involved with the bidding process, it was going to be a synthetic turf field."
Amy Fouty, Certified Sports Field Manager at Michigan State University, confirmed Kilmer's assessment of the dynamic sub structure. Fouty said "you could not put regular grass over a limestone base," primarily because of the way moisture would be unable to move through the stone as you'd like to have in a natural grass field.
With half of the artificial turf field installed, the boosters saw no choice but to continue with installation of the blue turf. Luckily for Reis and the boosters, D'Alessandro was friends with someone at AstroTurf, and in short order was able to procure terms for a top-of-the-line, synthetic turf field.
So, on June 9, 2011, with ProGrass now out of the picture and AstroTurf on board, Reis and company collectively signed a contract with AstroTurf for $442,311 to be paid in full come September 1, 2012. The contract covered the installation of artificial turf and a fundraising partnership with the boosters.
The corporate fundraising partnership eventually fizzled, however. AstroTurf intended on selling medallions (corporate logos sewn into the sides of the turf), yet this strategy didn't work out. According to Reis, as a method of raising money, medallions "worked on the East Coast (but) for whatever reason, didn't work in Oxford." The medallions were to be sold for $50,000 each.
In addition to the medallion program, the boosters tried to raise funds through efforts like the Golden Partnership, a Celebrate Oxford dunk tank, souvenir turf mats, and booths at many local events.
Though the medallion program fell flat, Reis couldn't praise AstroTurf enough. "It was unbelievable what they did. Their company is so professional. I can't even tell you what (a) night and day (difference) it was between AstroTurf and (ProGrass).
Reis recognized the impression the board's actions may present. "People will say, 'why didn't you get a contract?' Because we're all . . . honorable people and that's what we took them to be. We all stood up at that meeting. We all smiled, we all shook each other's hand and I was taught (that) you can shake someone's hand and believe."
Reis remains distrustful of ProGrass's behavior. "Who even knows if ProGrass would have come in at the price they said because nothing else that they told us was the truth," Reis said.
ProGrass offered a different version of events, however. Robert Thomas, President of ProGrass LLC, sympathizes with the predicament Reis and the other investors are in. "I wish them all the best in the world and I don't want to throw stones," Thomas said, "but I just can't make decisions like that. I have a fiduciary responsibility to ProGrass."
Thomas made it clear that his company did not walk away or leave the Reis and the boosters at the 12th hour. "ProGrass is not financing company. We are a manufacturer and installer of synthetic turf, and we're one of the best in the industry," Thomas said.
In December 2010, ProGrass met with the boosters, and Thomas was very concerned with the absence of corporate funding. By spring of 2011 the amount had not increased in the six months since the previous meeting. According to Thomas, the missing corporate funding "was the red flag."
So "we asked these gentlemen to give us some personal guarantees, and they refused. They were offended. They expected us to completely finance this kindly through ProGrass," he said.
ProGrass's offer was to co-sign a lease for five years at a cost of $300,000, $142,000 less than the eventual agreement with AstroTurf. Reis remains skeptical, however. "We don't really know if it did end up costing us more or if they would have stuck to the price that they told us."
ProGrass thought better of their involvement at this point in the saga, even though they had incurred costs negotiating the project with Oxford. ProGrass "provided intellectual properties of design and marketing, and billed them for $80,000," Thomas said. But Reis and company never paid for these services, nor responded to the requests for payment so ProGrass decided to "just walk away."
"We tried; we really tried," Thomas insisted. "We went above and beyond. "We had no agreement with them, and as far as I'm concerned, we're not the bad guy—we're the smart company."
But in the wake of two rejections by Oxford district voters, many citizens find the recent development distasteful, and feel the request for a "bail-out" by Reis and the gang is undemocratic. Oxford resident Michael Grabowski expressed his point of view on Facebook, displeased with the "guilt-trip" Oxford residents now feel subjected to. "Let's not reward the stupid, for the circumstances they put themselves into," said Grabowksi.
Another poster questioned the timing of the information and wanted to know how far-flung media outlets "got the scoop before" the Oxford Leader?
Reis assured the community that the timing of the release was not planned, and that Oxford Schools Communications Director Linda Lewis, who also serves a similar function for the football boosters, was not instructed to release the information.
"It was happenstance," Lewis said. A television station was following up on the recent vandalism done to the field and she told them "it's over and done (but) here's another story about the turf." Lewis affirmed that she decided to reveal the story independently when the TV news people called.
Throughout their many media appearances over the past week, Reis and Davis have repeatedly affirmed their love of community as the motive for what they did. They continue to defend their actions on the grounds of love for the community and an innocent desire to provide the best opportunities for citizens and students. Unmoved by the financial strain, they promise they would do it again if needed.
But they know that there are many in their community who were not in favor of allocating funds to build the best football field in the nation. They concede that "there were five of us who signed our name to this, and ultimately the five of us are responsible for this."
Further more, Reis and company do not want anyone who didn't support the turf project to foot this bill. "We're asking the people that voted for it to step up and help us out. We're not asking the people who voted no. It's volunteers we're asking to step up and donate."
To install a synthetic turf field is, ostensibly, to save school money. Usage of the field multiplies, and maintenance costs are reduced to nearly zero. This efficiency will not change if Reis and company fail to meet their obligation. Oxford will have use of this field for keeps and will not lose the field, regardless of what transpires between the Oxford boosters and Astroturf.