SONORA -- There was a time when the old Sonora Elementary School stood like a sentinel watching over the historic Sierra foothills city.
The columned white building remains, but without a purpose. A new elementary school replaced it decades ago. Sonora High School bought the property and used the old "Dome," as they call it, for district offices and the alternative education campus. Now, they don't even use it for that because the cost of bringing the 102-year-old edifice up to code is prohibitive.
But the campus soon will return to the forefront even if the venerable building isn't involved. A campaign to restore the original baseball-softball diamond and add another will make the place relevant again. More importantly, the way it's being done offers a blueprint for resourcefulness in an era in which cash-strapped governments and school districts can't afford to restore or even maintain facilities.
Certainly, the concept of community fund-raising efforts for public parks and school facilities isn't new. Modesto's new dog park, which opened a couple of weeks ago near Enslen Park, is the result of private donations for a public park.
Local fund-raising campaigns enabled Oakdale High and Modesto City Schools (at Downey High), among others, to install all-weather FieldTurf at their football stadiums. Sonora High got its FieldTurf in 2005 courtesy of "Three Wishes," a short-lived show on NBC at the time.
What makes Sonora's Dome field renovation project different is its scope of community participation and funding sources. Yes, the project involves sports fields and people always want good, safe places for their kids to play. However, the resourcefulness employed in Sonora could transcend to just about any kind of public project.
"Don't be afraid to ask," said Steve Njirich, an excavation contractor who is heavily involved in the field restoration project.
The Youth Sports Foundation of Tuolumne County, headed by retired educator Dave Crocker, applied for a grant from the Baseball Tomorrow Fund. The fund is the joint creation of Major League Baseball and its players' association and has contributed more than $22 million for field renovation, construction and baseball equipment globally since 1999. The Sonora folks came across it during an online search.
In June, the fund awarded $159,715 to the Sonora effort. The youth foundation also received $50,000 from the Sonora Area Foundation, which is funded by the estate of late Sonora businessman Irving J. Symons. As a child, he attended the old Dome when it was relatively new and played on the field being renovated.
The Chicken Ranch Rancheria Tribal Council kicked in $10,000. Those, plus a couple of other grants, gave the Youth Sports Foundation about half of the $500,000 needed to complete the construction project. The rest, Crocker said, has come from donations such as cash, materials, labor, equipment and professional expertise (architectural design, surveying, engineering, equipment operating, etc.) all from local sources.
Of course, it doesn't hurt to have an excavation contractor Njirich on the foundation board. He secured at virtually no cost and hauled in the soil needed to raise by eight feet and level the once-sloped north end of the field. He volunteered his time, knowledge and equipment, reimbursed only for fuel and his crew's hourly wages.
Service clubs, including the Sonora Lions, joined the project.
The field had lights, brought from Tuolumne City's old Ellis Field after it became a shopping center in the 1960s.
Chapter 391 of the Vietnam Veterans of America is replacing the old electric scoreboard.
The original field's backstop will be rebuilt, and one will be installed at the new field. Same for new irrigation systems and sprinklers.
The infields will be bare, compacted dirt, with the outfield grass scheduled for seeding in September.
Volunteers will clean up the weeds and the concrete bleachers built into the hillside.
Crocker got a commitment from Sonora High to maintain the fields once completed, and the school won't charge youth teams to use them.
Even in its decayed state, the field has been home to Sonora High's softball team. Once renovated, it also will be used for Little League and community events.
Crocker hopes the scheduled February ribbon-cutting ceremony will include Sonora native Phil Coke, now a relief pitcher for the Detroit Tigers.
Crocker believes the youth foundation's resourcefulness could benefit towns, communities and school districts elsewhere.
"A template for other renovations," he said.
No, local governments and school districts can't afford these projects anymore. That, Crocker said, isn't necessarily all bad. In fact, perhaps relying on government to do the heavy lifting allowed people to take their most cherished landmarks for granted.
"When no one feels ownership, no one takes responsibility to get it fixed," Crocker said.
Neither he nor Njirich can think of anyone who said "no" when asked to participate, and dozens of people now have personal stakes in the field renovation.
And come next winter, Sonora residents once again will have a reason to ascend the hill to their historic Dome.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at email@example.com, @jeffjardine57 on Twitter or at (209) 578-2383.