Biddeford may use $1.17 million in savings related to a high school renovation project to begin repairs to Waterhouse Field and possibly reopen it in time for the fall sports season.

The historic Biddeford field was closed indefinitely in April when an inspection revealed the bleachers were unsafe. The news set off an emotional reaction in the city, where residents showed up in force to remove the bleachers and have appealed to city leaders to find a way to pay for repairs.

Superintendent of Schools Jeremy Ray said the city has refinanced the $34 million Biddeford High School renovation bond to take advantage of better interest rates. The move gave the city access to $1.17 million without extending the amount or length of the bond, he said.

“We felt this is a possible solution to a challenge that doesn’t cost taxpayers any more money than they previously committed to,” Ray said.

The City Council on Tuesday will consider a request from the school department to authorize the transfer of the money made available through the refinancing of the bond to the school’s capital improvement budget line. The money would be used to fund the first phase of repairs at Waterhouse and the high school track and field.

Mayor Alan Casavant said discussions about refinancing the bond to address capital needs in the city began last fall, well before the school department received a report about the condition of the Waterhouse bleachers. But after the November election, market conditions changed and it wasn’t advantageous to pursue it, he said. That changed this spring, and the City Council last month authorized the refinancing of the bond.

The City Council has not yet discussed using that money specifically for Waterhouse Field and the track, but Casavant said he believes councilors will support that.

“I believe the council fully recognizes that the fields need attention and they need attention now,” Casavant said.

Waterhouse Field is owned by a nonprofit – the Waterhouse Field Alumni Association – and has been leased to the city for $1 a year since 1973. The condition of the 88-year-old field and its bleachers has been a citywide concern for several years, long before the stadium was closed because of safety concerns.

On May 1, an engineering firm hired by the school department unveiled a $6 million proposal to improve multiple athletic fields in the city. The plan targeted $2.5 million for Waterhouse Field that would include new bleachers, a larger, multi-sport artificial turf field, new lights and a new press box.

Ray said the first phase of the project that would be funded using the bond savings includes some of the recommendations from the report, but other aspects – including new artificial or natural turf – will be considered down the road. If the money is approved, the first phase of the project at Waterhouse will total roughly $840,000 and include bleachers for 2,000 people, new lights, a scoreboard, audio system and exterior fence.

Work at the Biddeford High School track will cost an estimated $338,000. The bulk of that money, about $250,000, would be used to replace the track. Other work would include ground work, jumping pits, throwing pads, audio system, track equipment and a small retaining wall. That work would begin next year.

The work at Waterhouse would begin as soon as possible, but would be at the mercy of weather and busy construction companies, Ray said. It’s likely that permanent bleachers would not be installed until October, so school officials will look into bringing in temporary bleachers.

“Our hope is to have our athletic fields at Waterhouse in the fall,” Ray said. “It may be a little makeshift, but we’d rather not stop playing there.”

Jim Godbout, president of the Waterhouse Field Alumni Association, organized the community day that brought more than 300 volunteers to Waterhouse in May to dismantle the bleachers. He said he is enthused about the way the association and city and school officials worked together to find resources for Waterhouse Field. Community members have stepped up to offer everything from excavation to construction services, he said.

“This field really is about community,” Godbout said. “To see what we did with 300 people putting their blood, sweat and tears to get us to the next level was truly amazing.”

Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

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