Weirton citizens say repurposing Bowman Field is more than just a recreation decision
WEIRTON – Approximately 15 members of the public turned up at the Weirton Board of Park and Recreation’s regular meeting Thursday morning at the Weirton Millsop Community with one goal in mind – making sure city administrators were aware of their opposition to Edwin J. Bowman Field potentially being sacrificed for Weirton Police Department expansion.
“The reason I’m here today is to voice not only my opposition, but the opposition of many of those you see here today, to the request made at the council meeting on Monday night by Ward 5 Councilwoman Flora Perrone,” Weirton resident Luke Myers said. “Councilwoman Perrone asked for the postponement of the planned and approved improvements to Bowman Field.”
Councilwoman Perrone’s request was the last order of business at Monday’s council meeting and the Park Board received at letter from Acting City Manager DeeAnn Pulliam on Wednesday requesting that all work on the field be stopped until council determined whether a proposed police and safety administration building would be built on the four-acre recreation property.
The citizens got together to make their voices heard after learning that City Council had directed the acting city manager to direct the Park Board to cease its work on improvement projects for the field at Monday’s council meeting, something they took as a clear sign the future of the ballpark was in extreme jeopardy.
“I’m not speaking to you today simply on behalf of baseball teams,” Weirton resident Cory Wingett said. “Over the last four years my son has participated in flag football programs at Bowman Field offered through the city’s parks and recreation department.
“Two nights a week during that season there’s anywhere from 100 to 150 kids and their families on that field. It’s the one green area of this city where kids have that kind of opportunity. It’s not just the sport, but it’s exercise, sportsmanship, teamwork, all displayed on that field.”
Former City of Weirton Police Officer Ricky Grishkevich raised an even more important subject most people don’t think of when discussing the future of a recreation facility – life and death.
“I worked for the Weirton Police Department for 20 years and just recently retired and I don’t think anybody’s looking at the safety aspect of this decision,” Grishkevich said. “This field is not only used for baseball and other programs for little kids, it’s a main artery for Lifeflight.
“There’s nowhere else downtown to land a Lifeflight helicopter. So, for residents of the downtown area, Marland Heights and out toward County Road there’s nowhere else to land a Lifeflight and those extra few minutes are critical in a life-threatening situation.”
A survivor of a life-threatening situation himself, Grishkevich is keenly aware of the importance Bowman Field has to the community as a safety resource.
“It’s a major safety issue,” Grishkevich said. “Those few precious moments it would take to transport to Weirton Medical Center or St. Joseph’s (Church) parking lot because they couldn’t land right here could make all the difference.
“If you’re having a stroke – and I was a victim of a stroke – a few minutes, even seconds, can be the difference between life and death, and you don’t want the location of a Lifeflight landing to determine that. It’s huge safety issue.”
Father Dennis Schuelkens, pastor of St. Joseph the Worker Parrish, Sacred Heart of Mary Church, St. Joseph’s School, designated pastor of Madonna High School and a member of the clergy for the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston spoke of the importance of fairness in the government’s decision-making process.
“I know that all of you do what you do and dedicate your time because you have an opportunity to make a decision to serve the people of Weirton,” Father Schuelkens said. “I thank you for the time that you put in and the careful consideration you give the decisions you have to mull over.
“This particular decision, to take out the ballfield, seems to really put a certain portion of our taxpayers at a disadvantage. I want everyone to take that into consideration. I assure you that we completely support our police officers, but we can’t put a large percentage of our community at a disadvantage to provide others with an advantage.”
Park Board Chairman Edwin J. Bowman, of former Weirton City Councilman and Mayor and former West Virginia State Senator, said there’s a great importance in treating each decision concerning constituents, public funding and public property with the respect they deserve.
“I don’t believe council did their due diligence in this matter,” Bowman said. “I don’t think they looked at this thing from all the angles they should have. I’m not anti-police. I’m just pointing out that as a council member or mayor, it’s their job to scrutinize decisions like this and understand all the factors involved, the money involved and what the citizens want.
“We, as citizens, need to pay attention to plans that are made and what they’re going to cost,” Bowman added. “We need to make sure that our decision makers have all the information and all the knowledge they could possibly need to make intelligent decisions.”
Multiple members of the Park Board applauded the efforts of the residents in attendance and praised their willingness to attend the meeting and be heard.
“So often things happen and you don’t hear anything about it until it’s out in the public,” Park Board Member Doug Finton said. “It takes a lot for someone to come forward, especially representing a group the size of yours, so we really appreciate that.
“I’m only one member, but we hear you loud and clear and I’m thinking the same way you all are.”
Park Board Member Deb Witkowski said she was glad the citizens in attendance acted with a sense of urgency and directed the discussion back to the request to stop all improvement work.
“I appreciate that all of you have come forward in a timely fashion,” Witkowski said. “I think we need to know what the timeline is? What happens next, and how soon are things going to be happening?”
Bowman, who attended a City Council Workshop where the proposed police facility was discussed last week, noted that City Council had not provided a concrete timeline and said he assumed the request was intended to stop work on the field for as long as it took for council to make a decision on where the proposed police and safety facility would be located.
Myers, the treasurer of Starvaggi Industries and an assistant baseball coach at Madonna High School, said calling a halt to the improvement work planned for Bowman Field would be a tremendous disadvantage to the baseball teams that call the field home, including Madonna and Weir High.
“Simply put, delaying this work cannot be an option,” Myers said. “The improvements to the field are necessary for our upcoming spring season and the time to do the work is shrinking as the construction season will soon be ended.”
The work Myers was urging the Park Board to avoid delaying was the complete replacement of the natural infield playing surface at Bowman Field, a task that is only one part of a Land, Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) grant project totaling more than $120,000.00.
“Luke has been a tremendous friend of parks and recreation, both personally and through his work with Starvaggi Industries,” Park Board Executive Director Coty Shingle said. “And, frankly, he’s been a great supporter of the City of Weirton generally, so he’s not just speaking here today as someone who has an interest in Bowman Field, he’s speaking as someone who has a vested interest in the entire City of Weirton.”
The Park Board, with authorization from city officials, signed an agreement with the U.S. Department of the Interior to receive the LWCF funds on June 1, 2020. The 50-50 matching grant was secured to complete a wide array of upgrades to Bowman Field and was finalized by the signature of then Weirton City Manager Joe DiBartolomeo.
The grant was initially identified as a prime capital improvement opportunity by Sustainable Strategies, a firm hired by the City of Weirton a few years ago to seek out grant opportunities for city departments. The process of securing the LWCF grant began in October of 2019. In accordance with the grant agreement, the funds must be expended by May 31, 2023.
In discussing the matter, Shingle explained the timing of the request to cease work on the field was problematic for multiple reasons. Shingle cited the small window of opportunity to complete the work without disrupting field activities as a factor but added that athletic field construction companies don’t schedule infield work during any other time of year, noting the proposed work had been planned even before the LWCF grant became involved.
“We’ve only delayed this part of the project until this point because the use of Bowman Field would not allow for it to be completed,” Shingle said, “And because we were waiting for a notice to proceed with the grant that we didn’t receive until late last year.
“Knowing this work was due anyway, we made it part of the LWCF grant. This isn’t something you can do while teams are playing on the field, and we’ve had a high level of activity on the field since late February. Now is the time to have the work done. It’s work we would’ve done even if there wasn’t a grant because it’s in our field maintenance plan.”
Park Board members asked during the meeting if any of the work in the LWCF project could be delayed. Shingle noted that other items included in the project could wait, but field work essentially being restricted to one time of year shrinks the amount of time in which the entire LWCF project can be completed.
“The timeline we have to complete this project puts us in a pretty tight box as far as the actual field work is concerned,” Shingle said. “There are other items in the project that could wait, but the infield replacement needs to happen now.
“If the Park Board was to wait to proceed with the infield work, not only would the baseball teams be left with a subpar playing surface for the spring, summer and fall of next year, but the next window to do the infield work would be this time next year. At that point, if there was any delay at all, we’d run the risk of not meeting the spending deadline.”
During the lengthy discussion at Thursday’s meeting, Bowman asked the Park Board for its recommendation on how to proceed with the project, and how to respond to the request from city administrators that all work be stopped.
“I think we should go forward with all the parts of the project,” Finton said in urging to the Park Board to proceed with work on the field.
Park Board Member Ronnie Jones stated he believed the Park Board had come to far to turn back, or even delay.
“We’ve worked too hard to secure this grant,” Jones said. “We’ve put a lot of effort into planning this project and I don’t think we should wait.”
Witkowski questioned whether the Park Board had the authority to continue with the project despite the request to stop from city administrators.
“All of you on the Park Board have heard me say many times that I believe every request from City Council should be taken very seriously,” Bowman said, “But, that being said, they don’t have the authority to stop us.”
Jones drew the discussion of the matter to a close by motioning to direct a response to the members of City Council that the Park Board would not comply with the request to cease work on the LWCF Grant project at Bowman Field. Witkowski seconded the motion and the measure passed by a unanimous 6-0 vote.
Bowman told the Park Board he would work with Shingle to draft a letter that would express the board’s wishes, as well as offer an explanation of the board’s decision.
In other business at Thursday’s meeting, the Park Board moved to proceed with an asphalt care plan at Starvaggi Park that would protect the board’s investment in renovating the basketball and tennis courts three years ago. Just six months after the courts were paved with a 2-1/2-inch asphalt overlay as part of a $315,000.00 renovation project, cracks began to show in the new surface. Park Board staff had spent nearly two years on identifying a solution to the problem but had been told by multiple industry experts that such cracking in courts is typical when subbase materials are not replaced.
City Council awarded the Park Board $15,000.00 last year to help with addressing the court cracking issues. Park Board staff reported to the board a few months ago that an asphalt care plan would run between $15,000.00 and $30,000.00.
The Park Board also took action to make pay raises for its full-time employees approved at last month’s meeting retroactive to July 1, 2021 and directed Shingle to draft a letter to Councilwoman Perrone outlining the Park Board’s prioritized list of improvement projects for Marland Heights Park. Councilwoman Perrone, whose ward the park resides in, was among the 30 Weirton residents in attendance at last month’s Park Board meeting to discuss the future of the park.