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After board oks sale, community ponders fate of stadium property

December 3, 2012
Morning Journal News

NEWELL - The sale of Newell Memorial Field began quietly enough at a June meeting of the Hancock County school board, but it didn't take long for people to take up sides on the issue.

How should the property be sold? To whom should it be sold? For how much? What should it be used for?

As the school board wrestled with those questions, it also found itself in the middle of a battle for public support. While some people praised the board for its circumspect handling of the sale, others questioned the board's motives and methods - especially its reluctance to deal with the Chester Volunteer Fire Department and the city of Chester.

"Despite what people think, all five of us (board members) are concerned about what happens to the community," board President Jerry Durante said Friday after the board accepted the Hancock County commissioners' offer of $400,000 for the Newell and Weirton stadium properties.

The pending sale to the commissioners means the Newell property will likely be steered away from recreational uses and toward economic development - an outcome that community leaders say they could not have anticipated but that could have been a lot worse.

Beverly Enochs, president of the Newell Community Improvement Coalition, said her organization wanted the school board to consider ways of disposing of the property other than a public auction.

Fact Box

What follows is a timeline of events related to the sale of Newell Memorial Field and the old Jimmy Carey Stadium in Weirton:

* June 19, 2012-Hancock County school board declares both stadiums surplus property in anticipation of the completion of new multi-sports complexes at Oak Glen and Weirton high schools.

* July 2-Chester fire Chief John Hissam sends a letter to Superintendent Suzan Smith offering to buy the Newell stadium property for a "donation" of $150,000, to be paid in three yearly installments. The offer is later increased to $300,000.

* July 16-Smith rejects Hissam's offer, saying she is constrained by a state law that says school boards cannot negotiate with non-governmental agencies.

* Aug. 13-The school board sets the public auction date for both stadium properties for Oct. 5.

* Aug. 27-Sue Thompson, treasurer of the Newell Community Improvement Coalition, tells the school board of the community's misgivings over the proposed sale of the Newell stadium and submits a list of petition signatures.

* Aug. 31-Hissam goes public about the fire department's attempts to buy the Newell property.

* Sept. 10-The school board votes 3-2 to reject Smith's rules for the Oct. 5 auction, including a requirement for a 10 percent down payment and a lump-sum payment soon thereafter. The board also removes Jimmy Carey Stadium from the auction. Thompson attends the meeting and reiterates her objections to the auction.

* Sept. 24-Smith tells the school board the Oct. 5 auction will be postponed.

* Oct. 1-The city of Chester offers to facilitate the sale of Newell Memorial Field to the fire department for $250,000, using money from an anonymous, private donor. The offer dies for lack of interest by the school board.

* Oct. 8-The school board reschedules the auction for Oct. 25 under slightly revised rules and sets the minimum bid at $250,000. Thompson attends the meeting and reiterates her objections to the auction.

* Oct. 25-Auction held for Newell Memorial Field, with only one bidder, Hissam, bidding $50,000.

* Oct. 29-The school board rejects Hissam's bid, saying it was $200,000 too low.

* Nov. 4-Newell businessman Tommy Ogden writes a letter to the editor of The Review saying he would be willing to pay $250,000 for the Newell property and would consult with Hancock County commissioners on how to pursue economic development on part of the property.

* Nov. 5-The city of Chester and Hissam make a second joint offer on the Newell property, saying they would be willing to pay $250,000 up front.

* Nov. 13-The school board passes on the latest Chester offer and reschedules the auction for Nov. 30. Ogden attends the meeting and explains his proposal to the board.

* Nov. 19-The school board postpones the auction indefinitely after meeting with two Hancock County commissioners and an economic development official from Weirton.

* Nov. 24-Protesters organized by Oak Glen High School alumnus Jackson Wilson meet in front of Newell Memorial Field, chanting slogans against the school board.

* Nov. 26-Hancock County commissioners, in a special meeting, vote 3-0 to offer the school board $400,000 for both stadium properties, saying they want to market the land for economic development purposes.

* Nov. 29-Ogden and former West Virginia delegate Pat McGeehan fax an alternative offer to the school board, saying they would be willing to outbid the commissioners, to the tune of $425,000, if the sale were done by public auction.

* Nov. 30-The school board votes 3-1 to accept the commissioners' offer.


"We wanted to do what was right to protect the field from something unknown coming in or something we would have no control over," Enochs said. "We don't have any government here Newell. We're not trying to act as government, but we are concerned. This was a big concern for the community."

Coalition treasurer Sue Thompson attended board meetings throughout the summer, advocating for options other than an auction. The coalition wanted Chester fire Chief John Hissam to succeed in his efforts to buy the property.

"We worked closely with Chief Hissam, hoping they could make it work. We knew what their intentions were for the field," Enochs said.

The fire department wanted to develop the stadium for community use and for use by its annual Fall Bash fundraiser.

Now that the fire department is out of the running, "we are very happy that our county commissioners stepped in to help our community," Enochs said. "We will be working with them too. Everybody could use the development. I don't want to see our town die."

Enochs said she's confident the commissioners won't do anything to harm the community.

The lesson, she said, is to be actively involved in community issues. "Don't sit back and complain. Find out the laws, find out the rules, find out the situation. If you're not involved in it, things'll pass right by you," she said.

In the fire department's five attempts since July to acquire the property, Hissam said he learned that "you have to have politics, money and influence on your side to do much of anything. Without one of the three, you're in trouble. We had the money and the influence, but we didn't have the politics."

Hissam said he has no regrets about the fire department's involvement or his $50,000 bid, on Oct. 25, that the school board rejected as too low. He said he has done "not one bit" of second guessing about that bid, the only one placed at the auction.

"People are saying we could have got it in the auction, ... but with no one else bidding, why would I spend $250,000 when I didn't need to? I was the only bidder there," he said. "No one else bothered to take the trip to New Cumberland. I drove to New Cumberland in 20 minutes, and they could have done the same thing. They chose to sit it out. Now I'm the bad guy? Because I wouldn't bid against myself?"

Regardless, Hissam said he is grateful for all the community support he received, and he holds no ill will toward the county commissioners.

"I hope it works for them. We need jobs," he said. "But I also think it's important for the community to have public land."



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