Thursday, June 20, 2013
Four pallets of old wood, and a fifth of old bolts and braces and other hardware sit in a local warehouse. They must be moved and not to a landfill. That's the hope, anyway.
To an unknowing eye the wood and metal look like junk. To hundreds of men and women, the collection, once reassembled, is a treasure. Certainly a memory.
I'm talking about the indoor track that rested on the floor of the Portland Expo for some 50 years of school competition that ended in 2010. No one seems to know what to do with the wooden ramps and the banked turns that transformed a basketball arena into a noisy old-style field house. If they do, they don't have the money to see their idea come to life.
No amount of loving care can restore the track to its original purpose. That was a big reason the Southern Maine Activities Association voted to move meets to the Costello Fieldhouse at the University of Southern Maine campus in Gorham. During the Great Recession, no one wanted to spend for a new portable track.
So if you can't run on it, what do you do with old wood that's splintered and been repaired. Sanded and varnished. Patched. Cynics have suggested it fuel the bonfire for this year's Portland-Deering football game on Thanksgiving Day.
Some think the boards can be cut into so many pieces to be used as plaques given to individual high school winners at conference championship meets for years to come. "We hear that the most," said Rich Buzzell, athletic director at Marshwood High, an SMAA member school. "But we heard it would cost $2,000 just to cut it up. The SMAA doesn't have that kind of money. That's taxpayer money."
SMAA principals and athletic directors met Wednesday. The fate of the disassembled track was on the agenda. It has to be moved out of the warehouse to make room for the warehouse owner. The group set Sept. 19, next Wednesday, as the deadline for a decision.
Certainly there are more important decisions to be made when school districts are struggling to pay their bills and not raise property taxes. What is the price of nostalgia? What is the cost of keeping a unique history alive? Buzzell admitted there were tugs on the emotions of people in the room during the discussion. Dennis Walton, the Biddeford AD, ran on that track.
"It meant so much to the people who ran on it," said Andy Downs, who is Portland's director of public assembly facilities. "You could sense that when you watched. I don't know if anyone else would understand."
The first indoor meets at the Expo were run in the early 1920s. In 1959 or a year later, depending who you talk to, the track was replaced with the one sitting in the warehouse. In the 1960s, indoor track attracted large crowds. The distinctive sound of racing feet pounding the wooden boards coming out of the turns stoked the crowd.
In turn, the crowd noise pushed the runners to personal bests. The accoustics of the Expo made it sound like the old Boston Garden did when Bill Russell made his move to the basket.
The Boston Garden is gone but the Portland Expo remains. Yes, it's a great place to watch the Maine Red Claws and high school basketball.
The Expo was electric when heavyweight Pete Riccitelli and other local heroes fought on the regular fight cards in the 1960s and early 1970s.
You can argue that the track scene affected more people until the old wooden track played itself out two years ago. Running that track was a rite of passage for so many. The best of Maine's rich history of runners and sprinters ran on the track. As did their less talented teammates who simply wanted to compete.
At first the SMAA assumed the city of Portland owned the track because it was kept at the Expo. In fact, it was stored there until six months ago. The city says it belongs to the SMAA.
Insurers have advised the association not to sell the track for its original use. Reassembled for competition somewhere, it might be unsafe. According to Buzzell, the association is looking for a benefactor rather than a buyer. An angel to somehow keep the spirit of the track alive if nothing else.
Got a workable idea? Take it to Mike Connolly, the new athletic director at Portland High. He's the designated go-to guy. The deadline for a resolution is only days away.
Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: