OAKLAND — As construction nears completion for a new $3.9 million athletic complex with wintry weather expected to halt work until the spring, concerns about the long-term cost of the project continue to linger after years of debate.

But even those critics acknowledge it’s a nice facility. The new site boasts a multi-sport artificial turf field, eight-lane track, a grandstand that complies with the Americans With Disabilities Act, LED lighting, an upgraded scoreboard and a storage building.

“It looks phenomenal,” Superintendent Carl Gartley, a supporter, said in a recent interview.

That may be so, but Richard A. LaBelle, a first selectman from Rome, said the financial fears of his and other critics are being realized.

“The facility is beautiful; it’s well planned and an asset for the community,” said LaBelle, who in 2016 served for nine months as co-chairman of the school facilities committee before resigning. “But the long-term debt is a significant concern. It hurts our town. But beyond debt and the financial impact, it shows a lack of priority in implementing some solutions to safety concerns.”

LaBelle said he raised these concerns while on the facilities committee — that other projects such as fixing an unsafe turnaround at Belgrade Central School were more deserving of funding over a new athletic complex — but Oakland officials seemed determined to push the complex above all others.

Voters in Oakland, China, Sidney, Belgrade and Rome collectively approved the project last November as part of a $13.9 million bond proposal that included putting $10 million toward repairing facilities at various schools in the district. The five towns share Messalonskee High School.

The town of Rome carries a disproportionate share of the debt per pupil, LaBelle said, pointing to the town’s share of $6 million in long-term debt being the highest among towns in the school district despite having the fewest number of students, at about 120.

“We continue to talk about it, but most times it feels as if it’s on deaf ears,” LaBelle said.

Gartley said the project has been a long time coming. Plans to upgrade the facility began at least five years ago, when RSU 18 received a grant from the University of Maine to determine the potential costs and feasibility of building an athletic complex. The Messalonskee All Sports Boosters also raised about $35,000 for feasibility studies, although LaBelle and other officials don’t think enough money has been privately raised to offset the local costs.

“As a district, this facility has been talked about for many, many years,” Gartley said. “I think we’re the only Class A school without a track. To have a track team with no track is — there was a big need to get this done. Even though the kids joke about having never lost a home track meet, it’s desperately needed for our high school.”

So far during recent construction, cold weather has impeded the completion of the rubberized track surface, which was scheduled to wrap up by early October.

If the coming weeks do not bring temperatures above 50 degrees, the final layers of the track — including one that will give it a red color — will not be laid. In that case, spring teams will still be able to practice and compete at the new stadium and it will open to the community, but the project will be officially completed over the summer.

“We’re still waiting for updates from the company to see what they’re recommending,” Gartley said. “We’re at the stage now where we are testing most things.”

Workers with the Cape and Island Tennis and Track company lay the rubberized surface on the new track surrounding the playing field at the $3.9 million athletic complex at Messalonskee High School in Oakland on Nov. 8. Staff photo by David Leaming

Gartley noted that the final layers will add protection as well as cosmetic value, and “are absolutely going to be done,” but that individuals “could use the track (today) without those” temporarily. The district would wait to resume work on the facility until the summer because new surface layers need time to set, which would delay teams from practicing if done while school is in session.

Messalonskee High School’s lacrosse and track and field teams will christen the athletic complex in March or April. An opening ceremony will occur in the spring of 2019 as well, but no date for that event has been set. Community members will be able to use the facility for exercise in the meantime. Soccer and football teams will play on the field next fall.

The new track replaces what was once known as the school’s “dirt oval” — which was uneven and dangerous for runners — as well as a grass field exclusively used for football. In the past, the boys’ and girls’ lacrosse teams held home games at Thomas College.

Gartley said he thinks the new complex will have a positive impact outside the high school as well.

“As far as the overall community, if you go to any community with a facility like this, it’s in use all the time,” Gartley said. “The resource it will provide in our community for wellness, for people to get out there and walk and exercise and have an opportunity to be involved with the school and on the campus — it’s good for the wellness of the community and it’s good for relationship between the school and town. It’s a win.”

While the project fell behind schedule, Gartley assured that it has remained financially on-target.

“It’s been hard because it’s been an expensive year to do construction, but we are going to pull this off within budget,” he said.

Farmington contracting company E.L. Vining & Son has overseen the project. The company submitted a $3.4 million bid this summer to do the project, the lowest offer the district received. It specializes in commercial site work, including athletic fields, and has worked with RSU 18 in the past on a project at Messalonskee Middle School. Cape and Island Tennis and Track was hired to lay the rubberized track surface, according to Gartley.

The project faced some opposition from the district’s constituent towns last year when discussions about putting a bond question to voters occurred.

Workers continue to work on the new $3.9 million athletic complex at Messalonskee High School in Oakland on Nov. 8. The project includes a new playing field, bleachers and track. Staff photo by David Leaming

Rome’s Board of Selectmen voted unanimously to send a letter to the RSU 18 school board and superintendent that opposed the plan for an athletic complex in July 2017. The letter cited concerns over a “lack of vision” for the project and a belief that “our primary focus should be on academics.”

The select boards of Sidney and Belgrade submitted similar letters to the school board.

In June 2017, Belgrade resident and former selectwoman Penny Morrell circulated a petition to have the town consider withdrawing from RSU 18 due to rising education expenses. The idea was ultimately rejected by Belgrade residents in a 692-400 vote last November.

Meg Robbins — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @megrobbins

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