Biddeford’s iconic Waterhouse Field has been closed after an independent study found the bleachers surrounding the field were unsafe.

As a result, the high school and middle school lacrosse teams will play home games on the artificial turf field at the University of New England this spring and the Maine Shrine Lobster Bowl Classic – a charity football game played each July at Waterhouse Field since 1991 – will need to find a new home this summer. Biddeford High’s graduation ceremony will also have to be moved.

Biddeford Superintendent Jeremy Ray, who released the results of the study at a school board meeting Tuesday night, was not sure what the next step would be.

“We’ve been given the opinion that the bleachers are unsafe and shouldn’t be used,” he said Wednesday. “I think that we need to evaluate what we need to do. There are many players involved in that conversation – the school department, the city, the Waterhouse Advisory Committee. I think it’s best for us to get together to decide what to do.”

Given the magnitude of the project that would be needed to repair Waterhouse Field – estimated costs to upgrade the facility run from $3.4 million to $5.5 million – no one is certain what will happen in the fall, when the Tigers’ football and soccer teams play at Waterhouse Field.

“Spring was the absolute priority and we’ve worked that piece out,” said Dennis Walton, Biddeford’s athletic director. “The fall is a big deal and we have had discussions, some potential solutions, but nothing that we can say for sure. We have ideas.”

The condition of Waterhouse Field – which is owned by the non-profit Waterhouse Field Alumni Association and has been leased to the city for $1 a year since 1973 – and its bleachers has been a citywide concern for several years. The grass playing surface needs to be replaced while the bleachers, lights and locker rooms have needed repairs for a while. Last fall, the bleachers in the end zone were closed after they were deemed unsafe.

Last December, the Biddeford school board requested a comprehensive independent study, conducted by Weston & Sampson of Foxborough, Massachusetts, at a cost of $25,000 to survey all available field space in Biddeford. Ray said the report will be available on May 1.

But with the spring season and graduation – which is traditionally held at Waterhouse Field in good weather – fast approaching, Ray asked for a separate assessment of the bleachers at Waterhouse Field.

The structural evaluation was done on Feb. 6 and found “light to moderate corrosion,” with some deteriorating wood and buckling of several truss members. The report stated the bleachers were in “fair to poor condition.” It also recommended replacing the light poles.

The report concluded that “the bleachers and press box should be closed pending further analysis.” It also stated that repairing the bleachers “may be cost-prohibitive when compared to a complete replacement of the bleachers.”

The visiting bleachers were installed in 1985, as were the lights, and the home bleachers in 1999. Both sides have had substantial repairs over the years.

“We knew this was coming,” said Mayor Alan Casavant. “It’s not a shock. We’ve been worried about those bleachers for a while. Once the engineer gave his report it brought everything to forefront. We’ve had a lot of public debate in last year or so; now all of a sudden it’s a reality check because we have to do something.”

City officials were grateful that UNE stepped in to help with the spring sports. Walton said minor changes were made to the lacrosse schedules to fit into UNE’s time slots.

Lobster Bowl officials said they are close to finding a new site for this summer.

“We’ve been working on another plan since December,” said Rick Hersom, vice president of the board of governors that oversees the Lobster Bowl. “I can’t say much until the paperwork is finalized. Within the next couple of days, we should know what we’re doing.”

Walton stressed that Biddeford wants the Lobster Bowl to return to Waterhouse Field once it is renovated. Hersom would like that. “That’s where we want the game to stay,” he said.

Ray said that about $300,000 has been raised in donations for repairs at Waterhouse Field. Much more is needed.

“As a Biddeford resident who has a lot of stake in it, I hope we step up and do the things our kids deserve,” said Walton. “They deserve a place to play and a place that they’re proud to play in.”

Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: MikeLowePPH