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July 22, 2019

Jamie Taylor/river newsHodag Schools Foundation President Dave Heck offers recommendations to the School District of Rhinelander Board of Education regarding the need for additional indoor practice space during a special school board meeting Tuesday, May 28 at Rhinelander High School. In a 45-minute talk, Heck explained how HSF and the school district could work together to build a facility to address multiple needs.
Jamie Taylor/river news

Hodag Schools Foundation President Dave Heck offers recommendations to the School District of Rhinelander Board of Education regarding the need for additional indoor practice space during a special school board meeting Tuesday, May 28 at Rhinelander High School. In a 45-minute talk, Heck explained how HSF and the school district could work together to build a facility to address multiple needs.

6/1/2019 7:30:00 AM
HSF presents case for investing in athletic facility
Options include dome or field house
Jamie Taylor
River News Reporter

An investment advisor by profession, Hodag Schools Foundation president Dave Heck made a case to the School District of Rhinelander Board of Education Tuesday that it should invest in the community's future by committing to improving the district's athletic facilities.

In a 45-minute presentation, Heck outlined two options for the board - the construction of a field house-type facility or a dome that would be placed over the field surface at Mike Webster Stadium for half of the year.

Also on the table is the potential construction of a two-field softball complex in the area between Mike Webster Stadium and the high school and replacing the football stadium's grass field with artificial turf.

Heck said HSF has raised approximately $1.4 million for the upgrades - including a record-setting $500,000 donation from Dr. Lee Swank and family - but needs help from the school board in the form of approximately $5 million to complete the project.

The board could take money from the maintenance budget, as well as reap the benefit of debt service dropping off the books, but $2.5 to $3 million would likely have to come from the district's general fund, it was explained.

Heck made the case that RHS spring athletes are being negatively impacted because they have to share one undersized practice space when weather makes outdoor practice impossible. It is this issue that prompted Swank's donation, which is earmarked to be used to fund an indoor practice facility, he noted.

Since the Swank donation was announced in December, HSF has secured additional pledges and two more major donors have signaled their intent to contribute to the cause, Heck added.

To research how best to use the Swank donation and other contributions, a committee made up of board members, administration and HSF representatives toured other area facilities, studying large indoor facilities as well as a dome facilities.

"We really have some neat options for you tonight," Heck said.

In addition to a Powerpoint presentation, Heck provided the board members and the media with a detailed account of the committee's research and background information on the money raised and how the project would be funded.

Heck started by explaining how the lack of activity space is causing logistical problems, forcing some teams that must practice inside during the spring when snow doesn't melt to wait until 10 p.m. to get their turn.

"They're going out of town to practice, they don't have the facilities, they're not engaging. What does that lead to? Sometimes it leads in not being behaved, sometimes in not having that academic success," Heck said.

It's not only athletes who would benefit from such a facility, he added.

"Mental health is a growing issue in Rhinelander and it is a growing issue in the United States," Heck said. "Exercise is a direct benefit to treat depression, it is a direct benefit to help with anxiety. Studies show that exercise can lead to better results sometimes better than medication, without the side effects."

Citing a recently conducted student survey in the Wausau school district, he said 12 percent of all high school students reported having thoughts of committing suicide, and 29 percent reported they had a serious mental health issue.

"The two key things that they're attacking to fix this one, counseling, there is no question that's an important one, and the second one is exercise," Heck noted.

Other studies have shown that mental health issues often spiral down into drug and alcohol abuse, he added.

"Having our kids and having the community have the ability when it's 50 below, 60 below zero weather, when it's cold and rainy, to be able to exercise directly impacts academic success, which is a major goal for the school," Heck said, while also pointing out that nearby school districts are making this kind of investment, and as a result, Rhinelander is losing students to them via the open enrollment process.

"What we saw was a lot of these (nearby) schools have dedicated field houses, so they have a lot more space and they're building additional space," Heck said. "They're having domes, they're building additional metal buildings, because, again, they don't have enough space."

According to the information Heck distributed, since the 2014-15 school year, over twice as many students have open enrolled out of the district compared to those who've enrolled in. More importantly, the number of students open enrolling out has grown from 101 in the 2014-15 school year to 174 in 2018-19 while the number coming in has grown from 43 to 67, he noted.

With each student who open enrolls out of the district comes a reduction in state aid, to the tune of over $1,339,800 in the last year alone and almost $5.2 million over the past five years.

"Our neighbors are competing with us and beating us in this regard," Heck said. "And not only are we talking about facilities, but they're also taking away our revenue. So it's a direct dollar impact to Rhinelander."

What's more, Heck said those neighboring districts are directly competing to get those students to open enroll out. With the district receiving some of the lowest state aid in the region, every student counts, he stressed.

"They're out there advertising the success of the facilities and of the school and what's happening," Heck said.

The $5.2 million in student aid lost to open enrollment over the past five years could have covered the cost of either of the solutions the foundation was going to propose, he added.

The first part of the solution Heck presented involves the possible donation of between 350 and 700 truckloads of fill dirt for the area between the high school and Mike Webster Stadium.

That donation, from Musson Brothers, comes with a limited window of acceptance as the company is moving dirt in conjunction with the Stevens Street reconstruction project.

"This is happening right now, you see the trucks driving through town," Heck said.

The district already has concept drawings of what two softball fields would look like in that area. This would allow the school to host high school softball tournaments as well as youth play in the summer. It would also mean an end to leasing fields at Pioneer and West parks from the city.

Also part of Musson's donation is hauling away the grass field at Mike Webster and replacing it with an artificial surface.

Unfortunately, work done over the last few years to improve the playing field and the track has not been as successful as the district hoped it would be. Drainage has been a continuing issue and increased use in marginal conditions has taken its toll, the board was told.

"There have been so many games canceled because of water, among several different reasons, and we just can't have usage like we should to host events and hold activities for the kids," Heck said.

Artificial turf would eliminate water concerns while at the same time opening up the stadium for other possible uses by the school and community.

"But, again, it is a timing issue, because the goal would be to go with artificial turf now, this summer, to have it be ready for the fall, to have it be ready for next year," Heck said. "And why is that? Because we will have 350 to 700 dump trucks back in that field, and Musson has offered to do what they can in digging everything up."

The cost to convert the field from grass to turf was quoted as between $650,000 to $700,000 while the softball field area would add another $390,000.

While the district could use the improved sports complex as a revenue stream, Heck said HSF would prefer that it would be available to the public at no charge.

He then turned to the option of expanding the available practice space in the form of the construction of a dome that would cover the football field at Mike Webster stadium. The dome would encompass 94,000 square feet and cost $1.4 to $1.7 million to build. The downside is it would cost between $250,000 to $300,000 annually to maintain it. The bulk of that would be in putting up and taking down the dome and electricity for the fans and heaters. The dome could only be up for six months, and that would be during the winter and early spring.

It was pointed out that because of its size, a dome could be used to host indoor soccer or tennis tournaments and could also be used for events of a community nature. It could be divided by nets to allow multiple users at the same time

A scaled down half-dome is also an option the board could explore, it was noted.

The upfront costs of the field house option are balanced out by the low annual cost to maintain it, according to Heck.

A 40,000-by-53,000 square foot building would cost between $5.5 to $6.2 million to build, but the annual maintenance costs would be between $50,000 and 60,000.

As the committee studied other districts with indoor facilities, they repeatedly heard that these facilities are necessities, Heck added.

"They said 'if we don't do this, we're going to lose kids,'" he said, noting that facilities such as these draw families to a community and make it easer for local employers to attract new workers.

"Which is a direct result back to enrollment, which is a direct result back to revenue," Heck said.

Director of business services Marta Kwiatkowski explained that the fund balance could handle a one-time donation toward the sports complex without dipping so low that the district would have to use short-term borrowing.

After over an hour of discussion, the board voted to authorize the work on the sports complex and the stadium. However, several members wanted time to digest everything that had been presented.

They also requested firmer cost figures for the two options.

Jamie Taylor may be reached via email at

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