As you may have read from the Current, the city recently entered into an agreement with the Maret School concerning the Jelleff sports fields. Much is unclear right now about the merit of the deal, however, what is clear is that the manner in which it was entered into is very alarming.
For those of you who don’t read the Current (which is the only newspaper covering this issue, and seriously, you really ought to read the Current) two weeks ago the city held a press conference at the Jelleff Branch of the Boys and Girls Club to announce the finalization of the $20 million agreement for the city to buy the club’s Georgetown property along with two other properties in the city. In a passing mention the Mayor disclosed that the city entered into a deal with the Maret School to fix up the Jelleff fields in exchange for giving the school semi-exclusive rights to use the fields. Carol Buckley of the Current diligently followed up on that point. Nikita Stewart of the Post, on the other hand, thought the most newsworthy element of the press conference was the Mayor’s opinion on Gilbert Arenas.
Here are the details of the plan as GM understands them:
- The Maret School will make improvements to the fields. These improvements will likely involve converting the entire field to artificial turf. This would allow maximum flexibility for the field’s use.
- Maret will spend up to $2.5 million although the memorandum of understanding between it and the city does not require any specific amount. The only requirements are that Maret construct an artificial turf field that accommodates baseball, soccer and lacrosse. The designs must be shared with, but not necessarily approved by, the Department of Parks and Recreation.
- Maret shall provide maintenance of the field.
- Maret will get semi-exclusive use of the fields.
- This exclusive use will last for ten years.
The Current has described the semi-exclusive hours generally, but the actual hours contained in the MOU are even more than the Current discussed. They are:
- All day (8:00AM – 4:00PM), seven days a week for the last two weeks of August.
- 3:30 – 5:30 every weekday during the fall and spring (that’s September through mid-November, and March through mid-May respectively).
- On Wednesdays they get the fields starting at 2:00 over that same time period.
- Five full Saturdays each fall and spring (the MOU doesn’t give hours for the Saturdays)
Those hours represent a significant chunk of the field’s useful hours. For one, the field has no lights and the MOU doesn’t require Maret to build any lights (and why would they if their hours are all daytime?). Besides, GM is very skeptical that they’d get approval to build heavy duty sports lights on a field that borders residences, Dumbarton Oaks, and a national park.
So assuming that lights won’t be built, the fields will cease to be useful at sunset. When we’re not under Daylight Savings Time, the sun sets at about 6:00 at the latest. Thus for the first half of spring and the last half of fall, Maret will basically be the only ones that can use the fields during the weekday afternoons.
When discussing this field it’s impossible not to consider the case of Stoddert Soccer. Stoddert Soccer is a very popular soccer league that has been headquartered at Jelleff for many years. For that reason, they are very concerned about this deal.
On the face of it, it may seem that this deal is unmitigatedly bad for Soddert. The organization is always desperate to find fields and with Maret now owning a pretty hefty easement over the field it will be all that more difficult for Stoddert to find space.
There are, however, some reasons for Stoddert to see a silver lining. The fact is that the Jelleff field is in terrible condition. When it rains the field turns to mud and is unusable for at least a day. Considering how much it rains in the spring and fall, this presents a huge difficulty for scheduling at Stoddert.
Therefore, with a brand new artificial turf field Jelleff may offer significant more user-hours than in its current shape. Thus while Maret is getting a huge slice of the pie, the pie itself will simply be a lot bigger.
Moreover, Maret doesn’t generally have games on Saturdays. In fact Stoddert rents out Maret’s fields on Saturdays. So it’s not clear whether Maret will even exercise that option or why they negotiated for it in the first place.
Additionally, the fields will be completely open and usable during the winter and summer. While this doesn’t help Stoddert, it will benefit those that do play outdoor sports during those seasons. (But don’t forget Maret’s monopolization of the second half of August.)
So if the deal holds pros and cons to one of the field’s most active users, what’s the problem? The answer: the process. From what GM can determine this was essentially a sole source contract. Neither Stoddert nor the British School (the other primary user of the fields) were given a chance to submit their own offers. Perhaps they would not have been able to beat Maret’s offer, but maybe some other school would have (for instance if St. Albans would have done it for just five exclusive years.)
Another option would be for the city to spend its own money on a much less ambitious renovation. The city is planning to spend $266 million over the next six years on parks and recreations capital projects. Perhaps it would have made more sense to direct some of that towards renovating the fields instead of handing them over to Maret. One big reason: artificial turf is normally only good for about ten years. By the time Maret’s easement expires, the fields will need to be replaced again. The primary beneficiary of Maret’s spending will be Maret itself.
But in the end we just don’t know what the best choice for us would be since the deal was struck in complete secrecy without any public notice or opportunity to comment. Since the city just spent some large portion of $20 million of our money to buy the field based on the promise that it would remain a community center it’s awfully alarming that the city would enter into this significant easement before the ink is dry on the land transfer.
And for what it’s worth, Stoddert charges $75 and serves 5,000 kids; Maret charges nearly $30,000 are serves 630 kids. While that’s an unfair comparison, the city invites such unfair comparisons when it cuts a sole source contract deal with an exclusive private school without giving the public notice or opportunity to comment.
And speaking of unfair comparisons, in this week’s Current Maret boardmember and Georgetown resident Leslie Morgan Steiner wrote an op-ep defending the Jelleff deal. She takes time to specifically object to the comparisons between this deal and the city’s aborted attempt to sell the West End library to EastBanc. She argues that EastBanc is a for-profit enterprise while Maret is non-profit, so therefore the comparison is unfair. Frankly, if she and Maret think that the public’s objection to the dark-of-the-night sale of a public library was simply that the EastBanc would profit monetarily, they did not understand that situation. The objection was to the process, not the outcome; and there’s no better evidence for that than the fact that after a public and open process the West End neighborhood now supports EastBanc’s most recent proposal.
The Current reported that Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. is concerned about the deal and wants to subject it to Council review. GM hopes he follows through. If this deal is as good for us as Maret and the Mayor says it is, they should have no fear of a little sunlight.