HAMMOCK: Turf era must wait

It's sprouting up, even though it technically doesn't grow, all over metro Atlanta.

More and more high school stadiums are installing artificial turf fields each year, including those in two counties that are comparable to Gwinnett -- Cobb and Fulton. Park fields in the county are heading that way and Buford now has an artificial surface on its high school practice fields.

The latest synthetic grass invasion comes Friday night, when Greater Atlanta Christian dedicates its new FieldTurf surface for the home opener with Columbia. Like most of its kind, the grass will look pristine. And the bonuses that come with it are numerous.

GAC figures it will use the new surface nearly four times as often (1,500 hours a year vs. 400 hours a year) because there is no issues with wearing down the grass. It also drains better in rainy conditions, opening up more play during poor weather. Because of that, GAC can greatly expand the game play of its middle school football and lacrosse teams.

The FieldTurf surface is a luxury that many athletic directors and coaches in Gwinnett would love to have, but there is one major drawback -- the cost. GAC's field project cost $750,000 and upgrades for Gwinnett's public schools would cost at least that per high school.

"Our fields take a pounding," Mike Emery, the athletics, activities and community schools director for Gwinnett County Public Schools, said in an interview earlier this year. "That always gets into a discussion about artificial turf and that's probably going to come up at some point. And that's something we need. But you look at the economy and other stuff that we're facing, how is that going to happen?"

That's why I don't think you'll be seeing artificial turf throughout Gwinnett for quite some time. It's not only a major expenditure, but it would require adding turf to all 18 GCPS high schools (it's not like you can just pick two or three to get it). So even if those were added at a cost similar to what GAC paid, you're talking a $13.5 million project.

Some controversy stirred up recently when Cobb used a portion of its SPLOST funds to pay for artificial turf upgrades. Will Gwinnett take a similar step? It's a tough sell during a time of economic struggle, when educational jobs are being cut and when students are in trailers instead of classrooms. Do you use the money for school supplies and academic programs? Or for athletic fields?

That's quite the dilemma. It's also why I think the spreading off artificial turf will stop at the Gwinnett borders -- at least in the near future.

Will Hammock can be reached via e-mail at will.hammock@gwinnettdailypost.com. His column appears on Thursdays.