With the thwack of baseballs hitting mitts reverberating through the space, volunteers and school district workers counted ballots Monday at the Hawk Zone to determine whether the facility would remain part of the Milton School District.
The days of Milton High School baseball and softball players playing catch in the former bowling alley at 450 S. John Paul Road are likely numbered after district voters rejected purchasing the building by a tally of 402-304 in a special electorate meeting.
District Administrator Tim Schigur said Milton would prepare to cut ties with the Hawk Zone by the end of the month, but he left the door open for 11th-hour changes.
The district has been renting the facility from Backyard Properties for more than a year, using it as extra practice space for baseball, softball and other sports.
Backyard Properties wanted to sell the building by the end of March and gave Milton the first shot at buying it. The two sides negotiated a price of $485,000, plus another $15,000 in electrical work.
The school district needed resident approval to buy the facility. The school board arranged Monday’s vote at its meeting Feb. 26. Milton went through a similar process several years ago when it bought the current district office.
Milton originally thought the building was worth $498,000. But a preliminary 2018 city assessment showed it was valued at only $398,000, prompting the board last week to consider calling off Monday’s vote before it happened.
The seller refused to change the sale terms. The new assessed value might have had some effect on the result, Schigur said.
Whether the revelation prompted more people to attend is uncertain. Voters came in droves, forcing even those who came a half hour early to park on the street, on grass or at nearby businesses.
The district only printed 600 ballots and had to make extra copies. That delayed the vote and agitated some in the crowd as the clock ticked further past the 6 p.m. start time.
Residents sat wall-to-wall inside a converted batting cage. Somebody called the Rock County Communications Center to report a possible fire code violation, but an officer said the crowd was fine because it was expected to be a short meeting, Communications Supervisor Jerry Schuetz said.
During the regular school board meeting that followed the vote, school board candidate Harvey Smith said he was concerned about people’s safety had there been a fire. He added the limited parking lot and narrow time window to vote might have deterred people from attending.
Smith also gave the board a petition requesting a different voting format in a future situation. People should have been allowed to vote absentee or the district should have chosen a better location with more parking, he said.
Schigur said because this was a meeting vote and not an election, people had to be in attendance to vote. Schuetz said there weren’t many other locations in Milton that could have comfortably accommodated the audience.
Both officials said it was important to hold the vote at the Hawk Zone.
“That way they know what they’re voting on,” Schigur said. “Even if they came with their mind already made up, at least we had them there.”
Seeing the Hawk Zone might have persuaded some to vote against it. One man called the facility a “dump” during a short but frenetic public comment period before the vote. Only one person spoke in support and said it would be great for students.
One woman, Jodi Trepasso, addressed that argument and said voting no would benefit kids. The facility wasn’t worth it, and rejecting the idea would teach them fiscal responsibility, she said.
Former baseball coach Ryan Neuenschwander said at the regular board meeting that he thought the outcome indicated not an outright denial of wanting new athletic space, but that voters decided “not yet” or “not this” particular solution.
Schuetz said the district would accept the outcome and continue searching for other facility options.
“This particular situation presented itself. We presented it to the community for consideration. They told us they didn’t like this option,” he said. “We just got to keep trying.”