NEWELL - Fifteen to 25 area residents gathered in front of Newell Memorial Field at various times Saturday morning to voice emotions ranging from frustration to suspicion and anger that the field hasn't been sold to the Chester Volunteer Fire Department.
Standing with a Chester fire truck and the gates of the football field behind them, they wielded signs that accused Hancock County school board members of being greedy, secretive or at the least, being unresponsive to the public's will.
Jackson Wilson, a graduate of Oak Glen High School and student at Shepherd University, said he and others staged the protest because they believe the school board is biased against selling the field to the fire department.
PROTEST HELD — Newell area residents unhappy that the Hancock County Board of Education hasn’t sold Newell Memorial Field to the Chester Volunteer Fire Department staged a protest at the football field’s entrance. Chester Fire Chief John Hissam brought one of the department’s trucks to the site to draw attention to the cause. -- Warren Scott
"It seems like they have no intention of selling it to the fire department," Wilson said.
At a public auction held by the board for the 4.25 acre site, the fire department offered $50,000, which was much less than the $250,000 minimum bid set for the property. The board also turned down later offers of $250,000 and $300,000, made by the City of Chester on the fire department's behalf.
Board President Jerry Durante, who was called for comment, said the protesters don't understand legal restrictions faced by the board.
"They want to steer the stadium in a direction legally the board can't go," Durante said. He said the board may sell the field through a public auction or to a public agency but the fire department under state law doesn't quality as a public agency.
Durante said while the city of Chester attempted to buy the site, it was clear the city's intention was to turn it over to the fire department.
He said that would amount "to circumventing the law. It would be the same as a businessman approaching the city and asking the city to purchase property for him."
After meeting with officials with Hancock County and the Business Development Corp. of the Northern Panhandle, the board called off another public auction planned for Nov. 30.
Durante said the move was made to allow the board to consider its options.
Laura Null, who lives across from the field, is among protestors who voiced distrust for the school board.
"I know what the Chester Fire Department is going to do with this field, but it's kind of a secret what the school board plans to do," she said.
"I'm not pleased, especially with the secret meetings I've been told they're having," agreed Chester resident Patty Cook.
Wilson noted the fire department has announced plans to use the field for its annual Fall Bash and to allow other public events to be held there.
Some residents said they have heard low-income housing may be built at the site.
Durante said no plans for the property have been submitted to the board.
"Our hope was we could draw business, something that could bring jobs. It hasn't happened yet, and that's the reason for the holdup," he said.
Durante said funds from the sale of the Newell field would go to building a new maintenance building. The school district's current maintenance building is at Jimmy Carey Stadium in Weirton, which the board also plans to sell.
He said the board hasn't held secret meetings on the matter but has met in executive session with its attorney to discuss it, as prescribed by law.
"There's never been a vote taken (in executive session), just discussion," Durante said.
Chester Fire Chief John Hissam brought one of the department's fire trucks to the site to help draw attention to the protest. As they stood in the morning's frigid air, the protestors received a number of honks of encouragement from passing vehicles.
A history major with an interest in local history, Wilson noted the field was built as a war memorial in the 1940s, with a memorial plaque bearing the names of local residents who died while serving in World Wars I and II.
Cook said she'd heard a rumor the plaque's future would depend on the new owner's wishes.
Durante said he's sensitive to the plaque's meaning and the board will "do whatever it can legally to preserve the integrity of the monument."
Null said as a resident for more than 70 years, "I've seen a lot of football games, a lot of homecomings."
"I'd venture to say, if you surveyed the town, they'd want to keep the field," she said.
"There's a lot of history here, a lot of memories, and it's just a staple of the community," Wilson said.