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Blue AstroTurf Bill Comes Due After Michigan Town Spurns Bonds

Oxford High School Stadium's Blue Turf Field
The blue AstroTurf field of Oxford High School stadium, home of the Wildcats, is seen on June 4, 2012. Photographer: Matt Kohli Johnson via Bloomberg

Faced with deciding whether to issue bonds to install artificial turf at Oxford, Michigan’s high-school football stadium, voters took a pass. Then, a handful of parents promised to pay $425,000 for navy-blue fake grass so that their Wildcats could play in splendor.

The bill is coming due. The parents -- who include the spokesman for the National Football League’s Detroit Lions -- must pay $295,000 to closely held AstroTurf LLC based in Dalton, Georgia. They are racing a Sept. 1 deadline, amassing money from sympathetic residents, fundraising events at fast-food restaurants and the 24th Street Sports Tavern and even taking a $500 check from a Texas auto dealer.

“We gave our word we would pay them back,” said campaign leader Jim Reis, 57, a construction contractor in the Detroit suburb. “That means more to me than anything. AstroTurf has been great to work with. We’re hoping they will work with us when that deadline hits.”

The chase for stadiums has landed much larger cities in financial straits, such as Harrison, New Jersey’s unsupported $39 million debt to prepare land for Red Bull Arena, and Cleveland having to borrow $130 million to refinance debt to build a stadium for the NFL’s Browns.

No Thanks

In the 98-square-mile Oxford school district, 25 miles (40 kilometers) north of Detroit, voters looked at a much smaller debt proposal and decided not to play the stadium game. The boosters are banking on excitement over growing sports and academic programs -- and Michigan’s only blue football field -- to drum up donations to pay their private debt.

In November 2009, voters rejected a $635,000 bond issue for a new stadium field and athletic storage building for the 5,200-student district. They approved a separate $32.7 million bond issue to improve school facilities.

Still, fans of the Oxford Wildcats wanted to dress up the field for their team, which won five games and lost four in league conference play that year.

Reis and four boosters teamed up to figure out how to put in the fake grass without tax money. They struck a deal with ProGrass LLC of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, promising to pay the company after the turf was laid.

That deal collapsed, however, and the group turned to AstroTurf LLC, which agreed to install the navy-blue synthetic field and give the parents 12 months to pay the $425,000 cost, Reis said. A plan by AstroTurf to line up corporate sponsors didn’t pan out, Reis said, leaving the boosters to seek other donors.

Paying Up

The Oxford school district isn’t responsible for the cost of the new field, according to a letter from AstroTurf.

Thanks to a $10,000 donation yesterday, the group has paid AstroTurf $130,000 and has pledges for an additional $50,0000, Reis said in an e-mail. A goal was to get 300 individuals to donate $1,000 each.

Among the five who started the campaign is Bill Keenist, vice president of communications for the Detroit Lions.

Todd Britton, marketing director for AstroTurf, wouldn’t comment on the agreement with the boosters or whether the company would extend the payment deadline.

The new field drew national attention for its navy blue color with gold trim -- Oxford High’s colors. It’s slightly darker than Boise State University’s iconoclastic Blue Turf, a registered trademark the Idaho school owns.

Boise Knows

When Boise State learned of Oxford’s plans for a blue athletic field, it sent a letter cautioning the district not to refer to its new field as blue turf, said Oxford Athletic Director Mike Watson.

“I was flattered that word had gotten as far as Boise, Idaho,” Watson said. “We call ours true blue and gold.”

Reis and Watson said new turf has lured more Oxford students into sports.

“We have a history of being a pretty conservative area,” Watson said. “We had worries how it would turn out. It looks absolutely beautiful.”

Watson said he fears the novelty has worn off, which would curb fundraising. He said AstroTurf rescued the synthetic turf project and hopes the company can give the fundraisers a break.

“They can be a hero twice,” Watson said.

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