Rather than failing to plan for New Canaan’s athletic facilities or leaving the big job of fundraising to one-off volunteer groups, the town should partner with a single, existing nonprofit organization ready to map out a long-term strategy, collect private dollars and ensure that fields and facilities are playable, officials said last week.
The New Canaan Athletic Foundation would establish a much-needed endowment for future turf replacement at Dunning Field, under a new agreement with the town, as well as hold additional accounts for operating expenses and, separately, for fundraising in support of new athletic complex-related capital improvements, according to Leo Karl III, who had been tasked to study town fields by the first selectman.
“This is our chance as a town to build an endowment that is lasting and that does what it should,” Karl told members of the Town Council at their regular meeting.
“There are a lot of reasons this makes a lot of sense,” Karl said at the meeting, held Nov. 14 at Town Hall. “I think it would be healthy for the town to have guidelines and it will be beneficial, and create transparency and accountability for donors so they know where funds are going.”
Invoking the successful model of the Waveny Park Conservancy, Karl—an immediate past chairman of the New Canaan Community Foundation’s board who also had helped lead the New Canaan Lacrosse Association and the committee that saw the installation of the first artificial turf field at the Waveny water towers—called for a public-private partnership between the town and Athletic Foundation. The organization is on track to earn 501c(3) nonprofit status by year’s end, he said. Working under the guidance of the town’s Fields Use Committee—a group that includes the New Canaan High School athletic director, Recreation Department director and parks superintendent—the Athletic Foundation also is proposing to take over collection of (and likely increasing) the $20 “fields usage fee” that the town collects on a per-player, per-season basis from youth sports groups in order to help maintain New Canaan’s athletic fields—a total of about $52,000 last year, Karl said.
Those funds—along with a timely proposed fundraising effort built around naming one of the Water Tower turf fields for a yet-unidentified “New Canaan sports legend” (more on that below)—would help jumpstart the accounts that Karl described.
In addition, the New Canaan Athletic Foundation would take the lead on figuring out how to bring in outside athletic groups to pay to use Dunning and the new turf fields at NCHS during a period when local teams are not (from approximately mid-June to early-August), Karl said.
“There is a thought that, as a town, we should look at how do we monetize those fields,” Karl said. “We have got the assets, they are sitting there. How do we create additional revenue that will create perpetuate that endowment and help pay for that resurfacing when it comes due?”
In creating an “athletic enterprise zone” there, Karl said, the Athletic Foundation “would be responsible for managing, marketing and deploying during that time to raise revenue to cover any of the town’s cost incurred costs in terms of maintenance and anything goes and it will build the endowment that will offset turf replacement and other capital projects.”
The town and Athletic Foundation now are working on drafting a public-private agreement, Karl said, and the organization hopes to have it finished and signed by year’s end.
Under the Athletic Foundation’s proposal, the first selectman would appoint ex officio members to the organization’s board, to ensure communications with the town are open.
Councilmen asked when Karl would expect to hold public hearings on the proposal (whenever is soonest though “time is of the essence,” Karl said) and whether fields-use revenues would be taken away from the Parks Department (funds would be collected as a donation to a nonprofit organization representing sports families, so there’s no perception of a “tax” and the town “doesn’t need to run around collecting fees”).
Karl said that First Selectman Kevin Moynihan had asked him to consider taking a lead role with the Athletic Foundation this past summer, and that as he spoke to people involved in athletics in New Canaan he “quickly realized … we have got some amazing town employees and volunteers that put a lot of time and effort into athletics in into our town, both preparing facilities to be used and executing all the sports that happen on the fields.”
“Last year, the town entered a public-private partnership with the Waveny Park Conservancy to see that grounds of Waveny Park are taken care of in perpetuity, [and] a nice partnership was formed,” he said. “And I think now is the time to create a similar partnership with the New Canaan Athletic Foundation around athletic facilities and complex. This is our chance to create a permanent endowment that will see that private dollars are saved up over time and accumulated for the replacement of turf fields and used in conjunction with town projects to help new athletic projects come to fruition.”
Karl noted during his presentation that Dunning Stadium itself grew out of a group of football boosters who had wanted to install lights at the varsity football field back when it was located on Saxe Middle School grounds. When that effort was shot down, the group itself morphed into an ad hoc committee that saw to the creation of Dunning, and that the volunteer committee itself has been responsible for all maintenance there for 20 years since. In all that time, Karl said, no formal “endowment” ever materialized to ensure that every 10 years, funds are in place to replace the turf at Dunning. A grassroots fundraising effort pulled the money together in 2007, he said, but last year when the turf needed to replaced again—in a very different economy—similar efforts failed, until a group organized under Mike Benevento’s leadership to establish the New Canaan Athletic Foundation. Benevento is the organization’s president and chairman.
Councilman Christa Kenin thanked Karl for his hard work and for presenting a history of athletics facilities. She said it would be important that the town ultimately have the power to decide which projects to prioritize, so that New Canaan avoids a situation “where the Foundation, let’s say, wants to cherry pick a few projects but then we still have a broken fence that the town still has to pay for.”
Moynihan noted that such an arrangement is “the nature of the public private partnership” like the Waveny Park Conservancy.
Councilman Steve Karl added that no work can be done on public property without approval from the Town Council in any case.
Steve Karl said that if there’s a need to move quickly with respect to the Athletic Foundation’s effort to grant naming rights, that piece of the proposal could be broken out and decided more quickly.
Leo Karl said that there’s “a lot of giving” done in the final weeks of the year, and that there’s a “window between the Turkey Bowl and end of the year” where there’s an opportunity to “capture some philanthropy toward athletic projects.”
“The idea is—and I do not want to use the word ‘naming rights’—but it is a way to honor someone by challenging donors to give to put this person’s name on the field,” he said.
“By creating a public-private partnership with the Athletic Foundation, we have the opportunity to create a gateway by which all future athletic projects will go through,” Karl said. “It streamlines the process for the town and donors and really creates a lasting win-win. In addition, the Athletic Foundation is willing to work with the town for master plan to begin having long-term visibility over what are the emerging projects that will be needed next, so that we can plan for it better in budgeting and from a capital standpoint. The thought is to have an annual summit with some of the leaders from all the different entities that have have to do with athletics, to flesh out what are the priorities and let them evolve our time.”
He added: “I think we owe it to ourselves and local taxpayers to bring in dollars that would essentially come from outside of town and help us cover a local cost. It just makes sense to try this.”
[Note: This article has been updated to reflect positions within the Athletic Foundation.]