READFIELD — The future of a planned athletic complex at the Readfield Fairgrounds is now uncertain after residents voiced concerns about its cost and location.
The Select Board will decide whether to carry on with an altered version of the project or ditch it in August, when it has a goal-setting retreat, said Town Manager Eric Dyer.
Voters rejected two questions about the proposal via secret ballot at the annual Town Meeting.
The first question related to the complex — which includes the construction of a softball field, basketball court, kiosk, concession stand, pollinator garden and trails on the 36-acre municipally owned property — asked if voters would be willing to raise up to $500,000 for the project. This was shot down with 483 no votes, 344 yes votes and 17 blanks. The other question asked if the town would be willing to bond the half million dollars, with estimates on the warrant showing that it would include $138,428.28 worth of interest over 20 years, resulting in a total of $638,428.28. Voters rejected this question with 341 opposed and 245 in favor; 258 residents left the space blank.
And while the $500,000 price tag was included when the warrant was written, Dyer said before the meeting that the total cost may be closer to $700,000, with engineers citing increasing costs for fuel and other supplies.
As to why voters rejected the proposal, he said many of the concerns about the project seemed to be related to the cost.
“I think there’s still some interest in the community to pursue that, just with a different funding structure,” he said, adding that a phased approach may be more favorable among residents.
But at this point it’s too early to say if the town will approach the project from another angle. Dyer said town officials from multiple boards will be discussing the project in the coming months and “talking about what can or should be done.”
Prior to the Town Meeting, which took place June 14, the Readfield Conservation Commission presented a document outlining its position on the project, with slightly more cons than pros. The pros are that the central location of the fairgrounds would be convenient and beneficial for summer programs. They added that the combined fields could be used for other athletic activities or for community events such as Heritage Days or Halloween. They also support the use of existing infrastructure.
The commission was critical of the potential loss of habitat for pollinators and monarch butterflies, which are in severe decline partly due to the loss of breeding habitats like the fields on the town’s fairgrounds. They also criticized the town’s lack of adherence to the Fairgrounds Management Plan and its guidance for proposed developments. The management plan, which was written in the mid-1990s, stated that the town would need to explore all other alternative sites before considering development on the fairground property.
“If we start over again, we’d like to start with that document,” said Readfield Conservation Commission Chairperson Bruce Hunter. “To be fair to the town and the community, they did not know about this document when they started; it was kind of hidden away.”
In response to criticism about the fairgrounds as the location, Dyer said that other proposed spots, such as the elementary school, were not as suitable. He said the school is near the outskirts of town, may not have adequate parking and that community recreation could create a conflict with existing school activities. The town manager said the fairgrounds location, on the other hand, is in the center of town, next to a trail network and could add value to the town by connecting its existing baseball field to a much larger multifunction space.
The Readfield Trails Committee, prior to the Town Meeting, agreed not to take a formal position on the matter since each member had different thoughts about the proposed athletic complex. Trails Committee Chairperson Robert Peale said he would personally support efforts to approach the project again but that it would likely result in something different, as it would be a new decision made by town officials.
Also at the Town Meeting, residents turned down a proposed agreement with Axiom Technologies, which involved entering into a two-year construction contract and an operating contract of up to 12 years to create and run a municipally owned fiber-to-the-premises network . And while residents already approved an item allowing the town to raise up to $5 million for high-speed fiber internet during a special town meeting last November, voters rejected the Axiom proposal with 517 opposed, 309 in favor and 18 leaving the space blank.
Dyer said that with both the first athletic complex vote and the broadband question, there was clearly little ambiguity as few voters left the space blank.
Looking ahead, he said the town may revisit the idea of bringing high-speed internet to residents, but that it would likely look different than the Axiom proposal.
“I think we will be looking at it at some point in the future to see if we can meet the needs of the community, but the idea of a municipal project is off the table,” he said.
Overall, he said it’s not unique that Readfield voters rejected the two measures, as there has been a great deal of statewide concern regarding spending measures amid the current economy.
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