Posted May 8, 2011
Jim Dobmeier is a devout Buffalo Bills fan, a season-ticket holder who has watched plenty of winning and losing seasons.
He is about to have influence on his favorite team’s games in a way the most passionate, vocal fan cannot match. The Cheektowaga-based company Dobmeier founded, A-Turf, was selected to install a new artificial playing surface for Ralph Wilson Stadium.
“I’m looking forward to opening day,” Dobmeier said. “It’s going to be exciting.”
As Marv Levy might say, where else would Dobmeier rather be at kickoff?
The project will proceed regardless of what happens in the labor dispute between the National Football League and its players, which has left the upcoming NFL season in limbo.
A-Turf will remove the stadium’s existing artificial turf, which was installed in 2003 by a company called SRI Sports. Then, over the course of two and a half weeks, A-Turf will install its own 86,000- square-foot surface, a system called the Titan. The project will take place during June and July.
Eight bidders competed for the artificial grass replacement project at Ralph Wilson Stadium. A-Turf’s base bid was the lowest, at nearly $178,000, according to county records.
Dobmeier acknowledged that was a bargain price for a project of this kind, but he takes a broader view of the winning bid.
“The marketing value is going to have a positive impact for many years to come,” he said.
A-Turf has never before installed a playing surface for an NFL stadium. If things go well, Dobmeier believes the Orchard Park project could lead to work in other NFL stadiums. The high-profile project also gives A-Turf cachet as it competes for more work with high schools and colleges.
The county meets with the Bills each year to discuss improvements the team would like to see at the stadium. A new playing surface was one of the requests for this year, said Michelle Mazzone, the county’s director of real estate.
An annual poll of players released earlier this year by the NFL Players Association rated Ralph Wilson Stadium’s current surface second-worst among the league’s artificial turf playing fields. The Bills’ own players, however, were more positive, with 65 percent of those surveyed rating it “good,” the second-best grade in the survey.
Scott Berchtold, a spokesman for the Bills, said the team’s research of A-Turf’s product “leads us to believe that it will be one of the best playing surfaces in the NFL.” He noted a number of Division 1 college schools already use it.
The Bills were not dissatisfied with the stadium’s current surface, Berchtold said. “It was simply that we have played eight seasons on the current turf and it has reached its life expectancy. In fact, the synthetic grass fibers have begun to break down under normal use, so the surface needs to be replaced.”
The Bills worked with Erie County to establish specifications for the new surface based on the NFL’s requirements. But the open-bid process was handled by the county without any involvement from the Bills, Berchtold said.
Artificial turf has come a long way over the decades, evolving from the old-style “carpet” the Bills used to play on at the Orchard Park stadium. Modern versions of artificial turf resemble natural grass, with synthetic “blades.”
A-Turf’s Titan system consists of fibers that are two and a quarter inches tall, as well as sand and rubber “infill” that acts like dirt on a natural grass field.
Dobmeier says A-Turf’s Titan is the company’s premier field system, designed to give players a balance of foot traction and foot release to help prevent injuries. It is also built to be durable, playable and look like a field of lush, green grass.
Dobmeier, 52, an East Amherst resident, founded A-Turf nine years ago. He also runs a sister company, Surface America, which he founded in 1993. It primarily provides playground surfaces.
Together, the two companies have about 20 employees, not including installation crews, and generate combined annual sales of $30 million. Their parent company, Pennsylvania-based ECORE International, makes a variety of recycled products.
A-Turf’s panels of turf are supplied by a Georgia-based company, Controlled Products. Rubber for the “infill” comes from a sister ECORE company that recycles rubber. The turf panels are sewn or glued together by crews at the project site. Depending on the job, A-Turf uses its own crew of installers or subcontracts the work to approved installers.
A-Turf has performed about 250 projects around the country, including about 20 fields in Western New York. Colleges and high schools like the fact that artificial surfaces can be used repeatedly with minimal maintenance. Natural grass fields, Dobmeier said, tend to deteriorate as a season progresses, amid heavy use and inclement weather, especially in the Northeast.
“In the old days, you were playing your most important games in impossible conditions,” he said.
A-Turf installed a new field for Canisius College in 2008 as part of a $1.6 million project at the college’s Demske Sports Complex. The college got rid of an older-style AstroTurf field, said Bill Maher, the athletic director.
The new field — used for Golden Griffins soccer, baseball, lacrosse and softball — has held up well, and the coaches and student-athletes like its playability and shock absorption better than the old field, he said.
“It gets an awful lot of use,” Maher said.
Maher knows Dobmeier and is pleased to see A-Turf win the project at Ralph Wilson Stadium. “Really it’s a testament for the way they’ve grown their business,” by being selective about how many projects they take on, Maher said.
Dobmeier said he believes an A-Turf system could last as long as 15 years before it needs replacing, though some customers may choose to replace it sooner. “That’s really opening the eyes of a lot of people at the high school and college level.”
DiDonato Associates will serve as the lead engineer for the project. A-Turf and DiDonato previously worked together at the Johnnie B. Wiley Amateur Athletic Sports Pavilion.
No decisions have yet been made about what will happen to the existing Ralph Wilson Stadium field after it is removed, he said.
If A-Turf intends to make more headway in the NFL market, it faces heady competition. Five of the top seven artificial fields in the NFL players’ survey use a competing product, called FieldTurf.A-Turf, was selected to install a new artificial playing surface for Ralph Wilson Stadium.