Wisconsin high school overcomes obstacles for its field of dreams
Finding $4.9 million for athletic facilities upgrades is no easy task.
For the Pulaski Community School District in northeastern Wisconsin, the process started in the late 1990s when the district began planning for a new high school. But, to save taxpayers money, the plans were scrapped last-minute.“Since the old school hosted the athletic fields and pool, the thought was to build new facilities at the new high school,” Pulaski High School Athletic Director Janel Batten said. “After a couple failed referendums to secure money for such improvements, it became apparent that funds needed to be raised in an alternative way.”
Nearly two decades later, Pulaski community members are starting to realize the benefits of such a project.
When Batten arrived in Pulaski in 2014, coaches told her that new facilities were their No. 1 need. More than 100 events were hosted on their natural grass football/soccer field. Overuse of those areas, and the baseball and softball facilities, was a catalyst for the upgrades.
“We have almost 1,000 student-athletes in our youth soccer program and not enough space for them to practice and play,” Batten said. “Further, we had a synthetic track that we could no longer repair, a lack of tennis courts, and nowhere for our high school band of almost 400 students to march and practice.
“The needs were overwhelming for the opportunities that we, as a district, believe are necessary to offer the kids in our community.”
In August 2014, Batten assembled a Field of Dreams Steering Committee, which started with six members and has grown to 13. She and the committee then researched old plans detailing the project, revised them and tried to pinpoint why the endeavor had previously failed.
They presented and held listening sessions with high school coaches, community groups and feeder teams, which led to tweaked plans, more research and dividing the plan into three phases.
“Most importantly, we got out to the public and told our story,” Batten said. “At the same time, we reached out to staff members to help us with the graphic arts, marketing and web design to help us get our project out to the public. I interviewed with several local news stations and many newspapers to get our ‘Field of Dreams’ story out there. We were finally ready to go out and secure private donations.”
Finding the money
In 2015, Batten said monetary pledges began to come in rapidly.
“We felt we needed to build upon that momentum and get a shovel in the ground to ensure the naysayers that thought ‘Pulaski will never get this done,’ because they had witnessed the failed referendums in the past,” Batten said. “We did not have the entire cost pledged yet for phase one ($3.2 million), but we were well on our way. The school board of the Pulaski Community School District supported us by securing a $2.8 million bond for cash flow borrowing, and that proved to be a big help.”
Digging started in spring 2016. Batten and the committee met their goal of playing on the synthetic turf field four months later.
“We had over 3,000 people at the game that evening to witness the Red Raider win,” Batten said.
The money for phase one has been raised through donations and pledges. Batten said this year they are working on raising $2.5 million for phase two.
“During phase one, we concentrated on getting larger corporate donations first before we went out and talked with community members regarding the Legacy Club,” Batten said. The Legacy Club is made up of a maximum of 100 donors that pledge to give $10,000 each over a period of five years, which would raise $1 million.
There are bronze, silver, gold and platinum levels of giving, and supporters can donate $100 to $300 for a seat engraving at the new stadium. The group is also hosting community events such as a bowling tournament and raffles.
“We are very pleased with the success of our fundraising,” Batten said. “Some of the fundraisers are more successful than others at different times of the year because they get more exposure. For example, it is easier to sell seat engraving opportunities when the weather is nice and a person can actually walk out and see the seat that their name can be on (it).”
Facilities Director Kevin Bahr and groundskeeper Greg Derricks said Batten and the steering committee have put in countless hours to make this dream a reality.
“I think you need a great lead person who is motivated, passionate and honest about what the plan is and why you are doing it,” Bahr said.
“She has a passion and drive to get things accomplished no matter how much work it entails,” Derricks said. “There is so much that goes on that nobody sees or knows about, but in the end when you see how pumped up the entire community and school district is about the new facility, it so worth it.”
Batten said that raising private funds for a project that was previously defeated in referendum had its challenges.
“People were cautious that we could raise the money, and of course, no matter what you do, there will always be those who question the necessity of a project,” Batten said. “During the first few months of the phase one project, we spent many evenings presenting to different groups of people within the community, telling our story and educating people about the necessity of these facilities.”
Bahr added that it was difficult to stay ahead of the game by getting the necessary permits and Department of Natural Resources approval to keep the project on track.
“Keep communication clear and have all decisions being made limited to your (athletic director), facilities director and business manager so there is not confusion,” Bahr said.
Having artificial turf has saved time with lining and stenciling, irrigation and aeration, seeding and fertilizing, and rolling the field. But that doesn’t mean it’s maintenance free.
“The addition of a synthetic field was not and is not a cost saving idea. The turf areas still need maintenance and work, but it’s great to have more space,” Bahr said.
Despite the extra work to make this dream come true, Batten said she is happy to be a part of the “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
“The most important piece of advice I would give anyone starting a similar project would be to first assemble a great steering committee and group of people to work with. The committee members are relentless,” Batten said. “I am so proud of the work this committee has done for the students and community members of the Pulaski Community School District. Our facilities director (Bahr) and outdoor athletic field manager (Derricks) made a great team to work with on this project as well.”