SUMMIT, NJ — Outside temperatures may be below freezing, but the boys and girls of summer were the hot topic at the February 6 Summit Common Council meeting.
A group of residents has been working with the mayor, planning board, City staff, and several council members for two and a half years on ways to improve facilities for the town’s baseball and softball players. At the meeting, Rob Friedrich, accompanied by John Flack, Ed Albowicz, and Tom Nolan, presented the group’s vision for polishing Summit’s “diamond in the rough.”
Friedrich, the father of two “passionate” baseball-playing sons, noted that healthy outdoor activities are among the reasons people move to Summit, but that “in the modern era, our children’s outdoor activities revolve around organized athletics, making the quality of the City’s athletic facilities both paramount in importance to the community and its residents.”
The need and support for a baseball complex led to its inclusion as a developmental priority in the recently concluded master plan reevaluation. Friedrich called baseball “the most inclusive of all sports, the safest of all sports, and I might even say, the most American of all sports.”
Describing what he called the “Summit paradox,” he said baseball and softball are the top participation sports in Summit, with annual registration around 1,400 players – at least twice that of any other sport – and some 600 events scheduled three seasons out of four. Yet the town’s facilities are disaggregated, inadequate to handle current demand, and in some cases, unsafe and unsanitary. There also is no dedicated and properly constructed full-sized baseball field.
He cited the unique requirements of baseball fields regarding irrigation, drainage, and proper grooming of infields and outfields, as well as the need for sanitation facilities. Attempting to achieve this in multiple scattered locations is a “fool’s errand,” although he admitted that he and his colleagues at the meeting were among the fools attempting that feat on a regular basis. He pointed to the baseball complexes in Chatham, Millburn, and Union as examples of how fields should be run. Friedrich also suggested that, beyond benefiting players and their families, a baseball complex would allow all residents to socialize and build a sense of community.
Addressing the question of where to put such a complex, Friedrich said his group had worked with City staff to assess undeveloped land. They determined the excess land at the transfer station is the most viable option. He noted that it’s an environmentally challenged site requiring expensive and mandatory remediation. Working with City engineer Aaron Schrager and the City’s remediation consultant, they learned the state’s remediation fund would provide 75% of the remediation costs if the property is developed for active recreation. They also worked with Schrager to “test-fit” the proposal on the available property, with a view toward not impacting transfer station operations or increasing traffic on West End Avenue. Friedrich presented a scale drawing of the proposed facility on the site. The remediation process would also present the opportunity to receive a fully-capped paved pad ideally suited for the construction of baseball fields with appropriate irrigation and drainage.
The proposed complex is designed to be largely self-funding, although Friedrich stressed that’s not to be confused with self-financing. The fields would generate substantial recurring revenues which would largely be available to service construction financing. Construction costs are conservatively estimated to be $3-5 million, depending on the extent and quality of ancillary facilities such as walking paths and play areas for younger children. He indicated that town assistance would be needed for completing the remediation process, obtaining building rights, assisting with permitting and financing, and navigating the environmental and redevelopment process. No City general fund assistance would be required to construct, maintain, or operate the facility. Summit Junior Baseball & Softball (SJBS) would secure and identify funding, design and manage construction, and operate the complex.
Ward 1 Councilman Mike McTernan, a former SJBS coach himself, called the presenters “change agents,” applauding their perseverance and recognizing their “labor of love.” He asked whether existing fields would still be needed if the complex were built. Friedrich responded that players would still need at least some of the current inventory, especially during Rec Baseball season, but that the most “challenged” fields might be done without, adding that many of them are better suited to other sports.
Flack said his group has spoken with Summit High School coach Kevin Zaleski, who supports the proposal because the city lacks a proper field for a high school-level team. Flack mentioned the safety issues in some of the current fields, where there are soccer goals and other obstacles, compacted dirt, and inadequate fencing that allows people and animals to wander onto the field. He cited Summit’s investments in sports like tennis, football, basketball, and soccer over the past three years, with none for baseball over a much longer timeframe.
Responding to a question from McTernan about potential revenue streams, Flack pointed out that concession rights for the aquatic center brought in $15,000 for one season; the complex would be in operation during three seasons. Baseball tournaments could bring in as much as $8,000 - $10,000 per weekend. Facility fees charged to players, naming rights, and rentals for sports camps are other possibilities. He said that while it’s uncertain whether these fees could cover the costs of ancillary facilities, they should cover most or all of the baseball-related construction costs. He did say they would likely need the City’s help to raise the financing. In addition to the state remediation grants, Green Acres funding may help with the remaining 25% of remediation costs. Further, the non-profit Summit Junior Baseball may benefit from savings on more efficient maintenance at this complex.
The property in question is owned by Union County; Summit has a long-term lease.
Although the presenters downplayed the impact the complex would have on its surroundings, Mayor Nora Radest pointed out that neighborhood residents bought their homes understanding that there would be activity at the transfer station on weekends, and were already expressing concern about a possible increase in the number of recycling days. How would they be affected by 600 baseball events a year? Flack noted the plan is designed not to create additional traffic off of West End Avenue. City Engineer Al Schrader briefly described an access study that had been done, showing that creating access off of Risk Avenue was feasible in terms of both construction costs and environmental constraints.
Former Major League Baseball pitcher and Summit resident Al Leiter, who’ll be inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame in May, was in attendance to lend his support for the baseball fields. He spoke about how a similar complex in his Ocean County hometown generated “community bonding,” calling the Al Leiter Field/Berkeley Little League Complex “the thing I’m most proud of.” He urged the Council to seriously consider this proposal, saying, “This is an asset to this community.”
Earlier in the meeting, A. J. Tesorio was sworn in by Mayor Radest as Summit’s newest police officer. A 2013 graduate of Monroe Township High School, he went on to Brookdale Community College. After attending the Middlesex County Basic Auxiliary Police Academy in 2015, he volunteered as an auxiliary police officer with the Old Bridge police department for two years. Tesorio attended the 117th basic course at John H. Stamler Police Academy as an alternate route recruit in 2017, serving as a squad leader and a platoon leader for his class. His academy peers voted him to be the recipient of the John H. Stamler Police Academy Merit Award, and he also received a Certificate of Merit from the Division of Criminal Justice Police Training Commission. He graduated from the academy this past December. Tesorio was accompanied at his swearing-in by his parents, brother, and girlfriend
The Department also noted the retirement of Officer James Freeden, a 25-year veteran of the Summit police force.
City Administrator Michael Rogers recognized firefighter Thomas Penn, who completed the “Fight for Air Climb: Race Up Boston Place” on February 3. The event raises funds for the American Lung Association. Participants ascend the 789 stairs of One Boston Place in downtown Boston; firefighters compete dressed in full gear. Penn finished in 9 minutes and 50 seconds, placing 32nd out of 440 in the firefighters division.
In other activity, Council voted to support the Hometown Heroes banner program, honoring local service members. Phase One will feature 100 honorees on double-sided banners bearing the person’s name, image, dates of service, and military branch. They’ll be displayed on city-owned light posts along Deforest Avenue from Memorial Day through July 4. The resolution also created an ad hoc committee to manage the program. Assistance will be provided by, among others, the Elks, the American Legion, and Summit Area Public Foundation.
Police Chief Robert Weck took the floor to address an incident that happened earlier that day. Following a homicide in Newark, a pursuit led to Summit and, contrary to news reports, members of the Summit Police force, not the state police, boxed in the suspect’s vehicle.
In another vehicle-related incident last month, an SUV stolen from Summit was later recovered in Irvington and towed to a local impound yard. While Summit detectives were processing it in an open area, they were ambushed by two armed suspects. The suspects, who had the key fob for the vehicle, drove off with the SUV. Weck commended his detectives for the professionalism they displayed in not opening fire in a semi-public area, preventing a possible tragedy. He used this as an opportunity to stress the importance of residents locking their cars and taking their key fobs with them. “In the last six years, every residential vehicle stolen out of Summit has been unlocked with the key fob in it…. It has to stop,” he implored. He noted that many cars contain garage door openers to their owners’ homes, many car thieves are armed, and stolen cars are often subsequently used in the commission of violent crimes. Summit has a reputation as an easy place from which to steal cars. Weck urged residents to lock their cars and not put themselves, their families, neighbors, and the police at risk.
Council member at large Beth Little pointed out that many newer car models pull in their mirrors when locked, providing thieves an easy way to spot those which may be unlocked.
Weck also discussed his desire to put a geofence around the city, with license plate readers to identify stolen or wanted cars. It would act as a deterrent for car thieves and could also be used for Silver and Amber Alerts. Summit would cooperate with Millburn and the DOT to cover local highways.
Ward 2 Councilman Stephen Bowman introduced an ordinance prohibiting motor vehicles from being parked on front and side yards where there are no driveways. It will be discussed fully in two weeks.
In closing comments, Bowman, representative to the Joint Meeting representing eleven Union and Essex communities’ wastewater treatment program, reported that that body’s 2018 budget is $34 million, up about 4% over last year. It is purchasing 2.5 acres surrounding the plant in Elizabeth to build a levee to protect the plant from flooding during major storms. It is also working with Waste Management to start operating a food processing center to increase the production of biogas to generate energy.
Ward 2 Councilwoman Ogden reminded the audience of the upcoming Summit High School production of “Legally Blonde,” running February 28 through March 3.