NEWELL - There were perhaps a dozen people with homemade signs at the gates of Newell Memorial Stadium on Saturday morning, though the unseasonably cold and blustery conditions took a perceptible toll on attendance. Still, a core crowd of protesters braved the unfriendly elements, intent on sending a message to the Hancock County Board of Education.
"We want the stadium to remain in the community," said Jackson Wilson of Lawrenceville, one of the protest organizers. "It should have never come to this." Wilson, a 2011 Oak Glen High School graduate, says Hancock County Superintendent Suzan Smith and board of education members have refused to listen to the concerns of citizens regarding the stadium and its place in the community.
Wilson spoke of his own memories at the field as a former member of the Oak Glen marching band, as well as decades of what he called "shared community experience" at the stadium since it first opened in 1950. "It's really sad to think that this could be sold to somebody that could just tear it down, and the school board doesn't really seem to mind," he said. "It's part of our history, and it should remain so."
A group gathered Saturday to protest plans by the Hancock County Board of Education to sell the Newell Memorial Stadium property via a public auction. Pictured are, (from left) organizer Jackson Wilson, unidentified, Patty Cook and Kathy Railing, with her six-year-old son, Donald. (Photo by Richard Sberna)?
Another source of anger for protesters is the school board's refusal to negotiate with the Chester Volunteer Fire Department. John Hissam, Chester VFD fire chief, was at the protest and explained that the department has made numerous offers up to $300,000 for the stadium property since this past July.
Hissam said the Chester VFD's plans are for the property to be a community park, free except for two weeks each year when the department would use it for their annual Fall Bash fundraiser in September. He feels the Hancock Board of Education is less frank about their plans. "We've tried to help the community in Newell along with helping ourselves," he said. "We've never tried to hide that fact."
Asked why he felt the stadium was so important, Hissam replied that it is the only remaining piece of public property in Newell. "Once it's in private hands, it's gone forever," he said.
When asked why she felt it was important enough to stand outside in such unfriendly weather, protester Kathy Railing of Newell pointed to her six-year-old son Donald and replied, "Right there is the reason." Railing said she worries about the economic burden her children will bear in the future to pay for the new Oak Glen Multi-Sports Complex in New Manchester. She feels it is unfair to compound that with the loss of a safe place for them to play. "For 25 years, our children will be paying these taxes," she said. "The one thing they have left here, they're going to take that too."
Another protester, Laura Null of Chester, wishes she had more information about the board's plans for the site. She fears they would sell the property to a developer who may bring something unwanted to the community, by which time it would be too late. "At least we know what John Hissam and the Chester Fire Department is going to do with this field." Null said that she will remember this when the school board members come up for reelection, and hopes other will do the same.