Crews roll out new turf at McNamara Park

Crews began rolling out about 437,000 square feet of artificial turf this week in south Merced, which marks the halfway point of the upgrade at McNamara Park.

Lack of rain has put crews ahead of schedule on the $2.6 million face-lift for the roughly 70-year-old park, according to Joey Chavez, the city’s recreation supervisor. He said the park upgrades could be finished in March, which would be about a month sooner than the originally anticipated date of mid-April.

The artificial turf going down this week on the south end of the park is enough to cover two soccer pitches that fit high school regulations. Austin, Texas-based Hellas Construction Inc. won the contract late last year to lay the synthetic turf at a cost of $630,543. Merced is paying for the improvements with money from a state grant.

Placing artificial turf is a multilayered process that starts with layers of sand and gravel that allow water to drain off of the field and keep it from becoming muddy. On top of that goes a tarp-like liner, foam padding and the fake grass itself. “If there’s a light rain, they can still play in these fields,” Chavez said. “It’s not like playing on natural (grass) where it’s going to be muddy and sloppy.”

The top layer is sprinkled with sand and rubber granules, or ground-up tires, similar to what one might notice when an NFL receiver drags his toes along an out of bounds line.

The two large fields, which are 300 yards by 162 yards each, can also be used as four fields for children under 10 years old. Chavez said the field is also equipped with water cannons to wash the pitches or cool the playing surface on hot days.

At one time, McNamara was home to vibrant softball leagues. The leagues have shifted to the almost 28-acre Joe Herb Park, so McNamara’s diamonds were largely unused.

Chavez said there are about 3,000 children involved in soccer in Merced, between Merced Youth Soccer and Merced Atlas Academy. He expects the pitch will attract many soccer players.

Academy President Fernando Aguilera said his organization has nearly 1,000 girls and boys who play the sport at different levels of competition. Children from ages 5 to 18 in the program have been using the park for practice and games for 15 years.

Aguilera said his team has used Golden Valley High’s field for games, but his team has always come second to the high school’s plans. So, McNamara was often its home. “When we trained there it was in dirt and mud. Iit was bad,” Aguilera said.

Atlas is registered with the U.S. Soccer Federation, which makes the academy unique in the region. Aguilera said the team was nearly stripped of that affiliation because of the condition of the park.

The federation didn’t want its players getting hurt in the mud holes at McNamara, so a face-lift to the park could mean more opportunities for the youngsters in the academy, he said.

Sixteen players who graduated from the program last year earned scholarships to play college soccer, he said. “That’s our job here at the academy – keep them in school,” Aguilera said.

For fans of real grass, crews are also laying a pitch of the natural kind toward the center of the almost 9-acre park at 1040 Canal St. The splash pad, a fountain in which people can play, will be in the space between the two fields. Surrounding the splash pad will be sidewalks, benches and planters. The restroom in the walkway is finished

The playground on the north end of the park will see a few upgrades, including a rock -climbing wall.

“McNamara Park is a big thing not only for the south side of Merced but for the whole community,” Councilman Mike Murphy said. “It’s a community park. It’s got a lot of history.”

The park’s pool was a hot topic in 2012, when it was reopened after being closed the previous year. It took prodding from members of the community and some donations, but the pool is the only public one in the city that’s being used.

Murphy called the new fields “top-notch” and said they will provide many people in the community a “consistent playing surface.” He also noted that the artificial turf, because it doesn’t need watering, will conserve water, something that might be on everyone’s mind during a drought.

South Merced will likely continue to see upgrades, because 2.7-acre Stephen Leonard Park on Seventh and T streets is expected to get grant money later this year.