Wilton looks at public-private partnership for town’s fields

WILTON — Some youth sports organizations are looking to create a public-private partnership for the town’s sports fields and recreational infrastructure.

Nick Gemelli, president of the Wilton Youth Football and Cheer program, and Chandra Ring, president of the Wilton Youth Field Hockey program, recently pitched their idea for a unified coalition to achieve a “shared community vision” with the town.

Under the proposal, a coalition of volunteer leaders from different youth organizations would partner with the town on future field maintenance and infrastructure planning.

Ring said that the conversations started after many of the town’s fields, namely the Wilton High School Stadium and Lilly Field, were shut down following the effects of a strong storm that swept through the Northeast.

“It caused a lot of challenges in the community and expedited the conversation amongst youth sports parents and organization leaders,” Ring said at a recent Parks and Recreation Commission meeting.

Through a more unified front, the coalition would be able to coordinate fundraising and volunteer help to not only maintain current infrastructure, but help in future projects, both in the long and short term.

Parks and Recreation Commission Chairwoman Anna Marie Bilella referenced the commission’s recent funding request to the Board of Selectmen. In its proposal, the commission asked for funding for three projects — one of which is to fund the first phase of building a new turf field with lights. Part of the selectmen’s response was a question on how much fundraising could be done by private residents of Wilton outside of town-approved funds and in between another possible funding request next year.

Bilella asked how confident the coalition would be in attracting residents to raise enough money to support a possible price tag “as great as a $2 million field.”

While Gemelli said it is a bit early to tell without a timeline in mind, he had “high confidence” the group could eventually reach that number.

First, more of a foundation has to be built for the coalition, he said.

The coalition has already gathered presidents from six youth sports organizations, including Gemelli and Ring. The other four on board are Jason Partenza, Wilton Soccer Association; Tom Viggiano, Wilton Youth Softball; Chris Skillin, Wilton Youth Lacrosse; and Dominic Rauccio of the Wilton Baseball/Softball Association.

“We’re going to continue to invite other community organizations and groups to join us because our big mission and vision is about the community for sports and recreation, and economic development,” Gemelli said.

Ring and Gemelli keyed in on the desire to bring more potential business to town by hosting tournaments, clinics and events that would attract more regional visitors. Gemelli added Wilton could increase tourism and attract residents from neighboring towns by having a bevy of new, well-kept fields and infrastructure that might attract groups to play “pickup” or unorganized sports or individuals who may use the premises for training.

Bilella suggested the group also incorporate a youth basketball program, noting that indoor sports also need to be a focus. Ring and Gemelli noted that conversations have started on that front.

Another reason the coalition decided to organize now has to do with some parent concerns about children playing on certain town fields.

Bilella asked if the group has been seeing an uptick in youth sports participation. Gemelli candidly disclosed that the spring flag football and cheer program typically saw about 125 children sign up, but this year is trending towards 425. Part of the coalition’s vision is to have year-round, expanded programming options for children.

Wilton Parks and Recreation Department Director Steve Pierce raised some concerns around field maintenance months, noting that his department would have less time in the winter months, typically December through February, and the summer months to keep the fields “as playable as possible.”

“I think that the success with your program dovetails with conditions of the fields,” Pierce said before Ring noted that the programs’ growth would put a strain on his staff. The two agreed to talk further to work on solutions.