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.
BOARD OKS SALE — On Friday, the Hancock County Board of Education agreed to sell both Newell Memorial Field and the old Jimmy Carey Stadium in Weirton to the Hancock County Commission. The commission reportedly plans to work with the Business Development Corp. of the Northern Panhandle to market both properties for future business development.
"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 likely will 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.
"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 in 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."