CHESTER - The Chester Volunteer Fire Department is interested in buying Newell Memorial Field, but don't expect Chief John Hissam among the bidders on Oct. 5.
Hissam said his department has been "locked out" of consideration for the property because the Hancock County school board is set on selling the stadium to the highest bidder at a public auction.
"Once this property gets into private hands, it's going to be used for whatever they want," Hissam said.
The auction is set for 10 a.m. Oct. 5 at the John D. Rockefeller IV Career Center. The stadium, on state Route 2 in Newell, has been declared surplus property by the board now that the district has the new Oak Glen Multi-Sports Complex.
Hissam said he approached Superintendent Suzan Smith in early July about purchasing the stadium for $150,000, at three yearly installments of $50,000. The fire department later upped the offer to $300,000, at three yearly installments of $100,000, he said.
"We think we can handle it, but we can't get any cooperation from the school board," Hissam said.
The department's total revenue for 2010, the last year for which such figures are available, was $407,606, according to the Form 990 it filed with the Internal Revenue Service. The department, whose biggest fundraiser is its annual Fall Bash, is registered as a charity under the name of the Chester Volunteer Firemen's Association.
The fire department would maintain the stadium for public use in a manner similar to Chester City Park, he said. The department bought the park land in 1952 and leased it to the city of Chester for a dollar in 1958.
"We have a track record and a history of owning public property and making it available for the good of the community," Hissam said.
Hissam said he believes the fire department's offer to the school board is legal and worthy of consideration.
But Smith replied to Hissam, in a letter dated July 16, "After researching this proposal, I have learned that the Hancock County Board of Education cannot negotiate agreements with non-intergovernmental agencies."
By "non-intergovernmental agencies," Smith said she meant private organizations such as the Chester Volunteer Fire Department. "We have been advised by our legal counsel that, unless it is an intergovernmental agency (such as a city or county), we would have to put it up for public auction."
According to the West Virginia Code, school boards must dispose of real property through a public auction, unless the property is sold to: the state or one of its political subdivisions; the federal government; or a private, non-profit, tax-exempt organization.
The latter may buy the property for a "nominal consideration" provided that the property is used for charitable, economic development or other community use, according to the "Purchasing Policies and Procedures Manual" published by the West Virginia Department of Education.
Hissam said he believes the Chester VFD, as a non-profit, tax-exempt organization, is qualified under state law to purchase the Newell stadium.
"We were looking to buy the property as an investment over the next few years," he said. "We would need it for one week a year - for our annual Fall Bash."
The rest of the time, Hissam said, the stadium would be available for free to the city of Chester, Hancock County Schools, the Newell Volunteer Fire Department, local civic organizations, and private youth athletic leagues such as the Oak Glen Junior Bears.
Junior Bears officials have complained about no longer having access to the Newell stadium and having to pay a $500 fee for each use of the Oak Glen Multi-Sports Complex.
Hissam said he needs the board's cooperation to make the deal happen.
"They've locked us out because they said they need a lump sum. We'd have to stretch it out over three years. They've said they can't wait that long," he said. "All they're looking at is the cash dollar."
School board President Jerry Durante said the sale of the Newell stadium must be seen in the context of the concurrent sale of Jimmy Carey Stadium in Weirton. Both properties will be auctioned off on Oct. 5, but only a portion of the Weirton property is being sold.
The school district's maintenance building is on the Weirton property, as is a parking lot for school buses. Those sections will not be sold at the auction. The district eventually wants to move its maintenance building to a more central location in Hancock County, Durante said.
Durante said the money from the auction could be used to build a new maintenance facility. "That's not a cheap proposition," he said, noting that he's open to accepting payments as long as there was enough money up front to relocate the maintenance department.
Durante said legal counsel informed the board the Chester VFD proposal is not viable because the board is not willing to accept a "nominal" amount for the stadium.
"We've looked at this at every angle to protect the community," he said.
But Hissam said "nominal" can be anything the parties agree to - "one dollar or $100,000."
In an interview Thursday, Smith said the school district's legal counsel is investigating the matter further "to determine what our options are."