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Barren ballpark: Falcon Park sits empty with future usage unclear

Late summer months at Falcon Park are often some of the busiest for one of Auburn's crown jewels.

The field, dugouts and clubhouses are usually occupied by young professional ballplayers looking to make a name for themselves. In the stadium's concourse, fans pass through the stadium's turnstyles, greeted by the familiar scent of ballpark red hots and fries.

This year, there's no howling from young children chasing down a foul ball, no beer to gulp down during nine innings of Doubledays baseball. 

Instead, Falcon Park sits empty and unused. The ballpark has been closed to the general public, aside from very special circumstances, since March. The last sporting event Falcon Park hosted was a men's baseball doubleheader between Cayuga and Corning community colleges on March 11.

The Auburn Doubledays, who have called Falcon Park home since the current stadium was built in 1995, were supposed to begin play June 18. That was until the New York-Penn League postponed and later canceled the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The decision meant that for the first time since 1981, Auburn would not host professional baseball. 

While the Doubledays are not Falcon Park's only tenant — Cayuga Community College utilizes the newly renovated turf field for several of its athletic programs, while the Auburn High baseball team uses the park during the spring — their absence has ramifications.

The park, which is owned by the city of Auburn, has operating costs. The current annual budget, which went into effect July 1, set aside $213,097, according to information obtained from the city. That's down from the budgeted $287,865 of the previous year. The budget covers employee salaries, gas and electric bills, and operating supplies. 

"There certainly will be quite a bit of savings related to utilities, general maintenance and staff," Auburn City Manager Jeff Dygert said. "When the Doubledays were playing, there was staff down there that would take care of the field, get things ready, get things cleaned up at the end of the night, things like that. Those things won't happen, so there will be some savings."

Dygert did not provide exact figures for the financial implication of Falcon Park's shutdown, but city officials said earlier this year that the cancellation of the Doubledays season would save the city about $20,000 for the current fiscal year. 

However, there was cost to preparing for a Doubledays season that ultimately did not happen. Mayor Mike Quill wrote in an April 21 letter to U.S. Rep. John Katko, in a plea for direct federal funding for local governments, that Auburn would stand to lose $100,000 "already spent on the 2020 season" if there was no New York-Penn League. Funding for the Doubledays' season — the team is owned by Auburn Community Baseball, an LLC — is generated through ticket sales, advertising and concessions, and that potential revenue has been lost.

While the ballpark is currently vacant, that's not to say it's collecting dust. Head groundskeeper Brian Rhodes told The Citizen in July that, after city employees were required to stay home for several weeks at the beginning of the pandemic, he's been able to take on a handful of projects around the park that would otherwise be impossible during a normal year. 

"We have all this time now that used to be tied up in baseball," Rhodes said. "We're getting a lot of field maintenance, building maintenance, we're deep-cleaning the entire facility. It's actually a lot of good work we're getting done during all this. There's a silver lining. Reshaping the bullpen mounds, power washing the entire concrete concourse around the box seats, that hasn't been done in years."

Rhodes also doesn't have to concern himself with the field itself becoming unkempt with weeds and long grass. In 2018, the city of Auburn and Cayuga Community College came to terms on a $2.1 million project to install a turf field at Falcon Park (among other renovations), that would turn the park into a multi-use facility shared by CCC's athletic programs. The installation of the turf was completed in spring 2019. 

CCC's contract with the city of Auburn sees the college pay $6.125 million over 20 years, and payments began Jan. 1, 2019. According to a 2018 report from The Citizen, CCC pays $335,000 for the first five years of the contract, $350,000 for the next 10 years, and then $190,000 for the final five years. Payments will help offset the $3 million bond the city of Auburn acquired to finance the project. 

However, 2020 brought several unforeseen circumstances due to the pandemic. CCC canceled spring intercollegiate competition midway through March, and then decided last month fall sports aren't happening either.

While the college's usage of Falcon Park in 2020 will be almost inconsequential, CCC President Brian Durant told The Citizen in July there is no intent to renegotiate terms of the contract with the city of Auburn. Dygert also pointed out that the contract states CCC is paying for "the ability to use the field," even if certain athletic offerings don't take place. 

Said Durant, "When we made this investment and partnership with the city to maximize a resource like Falcon Park, we knew that this was a long-term investment that gives us a home. This was something that the college looked at for decades. We're confident in the lease and we've budgeted and we'll manage the obligations set forth. Our choices to not run our programs this year are not related to the terms of the lease. There will not be discussions (to renegotiate)."

Who next takes Leo Pinckney Field at Falcon Park remains to be seen. The New York-Penn League season begins in mid-June, but the Doubledays and Minor League Baseball as a whole are in flux as Major League Baseball and MiLB negotiate on a new Professional Baseball Agreement. The current PBA was set to expire after the 2020 minor league season, which ultimately did not take place. 

Reports dating back to last October found that the new PBA could eliminate several low-level minor leagues, including the New York-Penn League, by the 2021 season. If the reported proposal is agreed upon, the Doubledays would be a casualty and Falcon Park would lose its most prominent tenant.

While CCC's fall sports won't happen, Durant did not rule out arranging for spring programs, like baseball or the incoming men's and women's lacrosse teams, to use the facility in the coming months to prepare for their spring seasons. CCC has not posted schedules for the Spring 2021 season, but if the 2020 schedule is any indication, CCC baseball would need the field by early March.

Next in line would be Auburn's varsity baseball team. The Maroons are tentatively scheduled to play their first game at Falcon Park for the Spring 2021 season March 13. However, the 2020-21 interscholastic calendar is in jeopardy as school districts await guidance for reopening for the upcoming academic year. 

There are currently no plans for public events, such as concerts, as New York's pause currently has limits on large gatherings. 

"At this point, we don't have any definitive plans for any use (of Falcon Park)," Dygert said. "If some of our restrictions through (New York state on PAUSE) are lifted, we may consider doing something down there. It doesn't really look too promising."

With the absence of the Doubledays and sports altogether, Falcon Park's future is as up in the air as the contagion that forced its inactivity. 

Dana Balter: John Katko 'part of the problem' as $600 jobless payments expire

After U.S. Rep. John Katko said Friday that both parties are to blame for the failure to reach an agreement on a COVID-19 relief bill and the extension of $600 weekly payments for millions of unemployed Americans, Democratic congressional candidate Dana Balter criticized the Republican congressman for not supporting a proposal in the House two months ago. 

Balter, D-Syracuse, is referring to the House Democrats' HEROES Act, a $3 trillion relief package that would've extended the $600 weekly payments through January 2021. It also included $500 billion for state and local governments, another round of stimulus checks, funding to help schools reopen after the COVID-19 shutdown and housing protections for renters affected by the economic crisis. 

When the House passed the bill in May, Katko, R-Camillus, voted against it. On Friday, he said there are many provisions in the measure he supports, but ultimately opposed it because of "poison pills." He criticized one provision that would allow for the early release of federal prison inmates who are either near the end of their sentence, age 50 or older, or have chronic health conditions that put them at a higher risk of serious illness if they're infected with COVID-19. 

In a statement Friday, Balter panned Katko's vote. 

"The fact that we don't have the relief we need is not a 'both sides' problem," she said. "Democrats in the House passed the HEROES Act two months ago. John Katko voted against it. Republicans in the Senate refused to consider it.

"The bill would extend the federal $600 unemployment benefits through January 2021. It would also deliver almost a billion dollars in pandemic relief funding for county and local governments in our district, provide hazard pay for frontline workers and ensure that we can conduct safe and secure elections. As usual John Katko is saying one thing but doing another. He is part of the problem." 

While the House passed the HEROES Act, Senate Republicans refused to vote on the bill. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell didn't release the GOP's proposal until this week. The $1 trillion bill doesn't include funding for state and local governments and would reduce the unemployment payments from $600 to $200. Once the payments expire, it would shift to a wage replacement model and cover up to 70% of lost wages. 

The GOP plan was met with opposition from Democrats and even some Republicans, including Katko. During a conference with reporters, he criticized the "wholly inadequate" Senate proposal because it doesn't "meaningfully address and enhance unemployment insurance" and it doesn't include aid for state and local governments. 

With the $600 unemployment payments expiring Friday, Katko blamed leaders of both parties for failing to negotiate an agreement. He expressed frustration and believes that the stalemate may be due to the campaign season. 

Balter, though, disagrees. She doesn't think both parties are equally responsible. 

"During this period of uncertainty, central and western New Yorkers are struggling to put food on the table and Rep. Katko made it harder by prioritizing his loyalty to party over the well-being of our community," she said. "It's critical that Republicans in Washington stop holding up the HEROES Act so that our area has the relief necessary to withstand this pandemic." 

Balter and Katko are opponents in the 24th Congressional District race. Katko is seeking a fourth term representing the district, which includes the western part of Oswego County and all of Cayuga, Onondaga and Wayne counties. Balter, who challenged Katko in 2018 and lost by five percentage points, is the Democratic nominee for a second consecutive election. 

Union Springs school schedules to depend on grade

The Union Springs Central School District student plans to have in-person learning during the new school year, with schedules varying by grade.

Under the district's full plan posted on its website, all kindergarten to fifth-grade students will be in school every day. Students in kindergarten to fourth grade will be at A.J. Smith Elementary School, while the fifth grade will be based in the gym of Union Springs Middle/High School. Those students won't intermingle with the other grades at the middle/high school "and will ultimately return to A.J. when social distancing rules allow," the district said.

Older students will have in-person education on different days. When they aren't physically at school, students will have online assignments, activities and coursework to finish to prepare for the next day's instruction.

The district hopes to build capacity over the beginning weeks of school and "work toward identifying ways to get more secondary students into school with greater frequency as the year progress," the document said. For that to occur, factors such as the state lessening social distancing requirements and the district gaining "a true understanding of our in-person student enrollment" would need to happen.

"It is our hope that as the first few weeks of school progress, that we'd be able to develop a way to bring the middle school back on a daily basis, and then work our way toward having the high school in session more regularly," the district said.

Students utilizing distance learning from home will get a Chromebook, iPad or laptop from the district.

The schedule for pre-kindergarten students will employ both in-person and distance learning. Schedule plans are subject to change as conditions shift.

The plan also said the "operational standard" for physical education, band and music instruction will be 12 feet of space in every direction. Plexiglass has been ordered for nursing and secretarial staff to provide an extra barrier of protection within their office spaces. Separation barriers are set to be made in the group bathrooms outside the cafeteria and the wing for fourth and fifth grades at A.J. Smith Elementary School to separate sinks and urinals. Meetings between parents and teachers and other communication between home and school is encouraged to be done over the phone or the video conferencing service Zoom.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said he will inform schools in regions in the state's fourth reopening phase, including Cayuga County-area districts, if they will be able to reopen in September. Safety and safety protocols under the state's guidance include physically distancing students 6 feet apart in classrooms and face coverings being worn by students while they are in hallways and other common areas.

Moravia school district plans for morning and afternoon in-school sessions

Schedules for Moravia Central School District students are set to differ depending on their grade, with younger students coming to school either in the morning or afternoon.

The district's reopening plan for the fall is now available on the district's website.

According to the schedule, as shown in a presentation on the website, UPK to fifth-grade students will be in school Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, with one group attending classes in the morning and another in the afternoon. All students, regardless of grade, are set to learn remotely on Wednesdays.

On in-school days, "blue group" students will be on campus in the morning and will do activities assigned by their teacher remotely in the afternoon. The sample schedule for blue group students in the presentation includes 7:45-10:15 a.m. for in-person work. Those in the "silver group" will have online work in the morning and will be at district facilities in the afternoon. The presentation's sample schedule for the silver group includes students receiving in-person education 12:15-2:45 p.m.

For Moravia Junior-Senior High School students, those in "group A" will physically be at school Mondays and Thursdays and learn remotely Tuesdays and Fridays. Students in "group B" will do distance learning Mondays and Thursdays and be at school Tuesdays and Fridays. The sample schedule presented for that school is 8:30 a.m. to 3:40 p.m.

The assigned group of a student will be announced the first week of August. Considerations are being created to have families who live in the same household on the same learning schedule, the presentation said.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is expected to announce in the first week of August if area schools will be able to reopen for in-person classes in September. Guidelines from the state include physically distancing students by 6 feet apart in classrooms and having students have face coverings on while in hallways, common areas or other situations where physical distancing isn't possible.