When Greg Wilkinson, the longtime Bonny Eagle High track coach, heard that the Portland Expo would no longer be used for high school meets, he experienced a range of emotions commensurate with someone who has been part of the building’s track heritage for more than 50 years.

“I was crestfallen,” said Wilkinson. “I’ve been going to the Expo for track meets since 1960 when I was 10. It’s awful.”

First as a fan watching his father’s teams, then as a competitor and now as a coach, Wilkinson has witnessed a good chunk of Expo track history.

A vote by Southern Maine Activities Association athletic directors means an end to Expo high school meets and a shift to the University of Southern Maine Field House in Gorham. The vote was 10-4 with three absentions.

Although Thor Nilsen, president of the SMAA athletic administrations, said the vote was for the 2011-12 season only, Wilkinson echoed other veteran coaches’ sentiments when he said: “Once we’re out of the Expo, you won’t see us back.”

An aging wooden, portable track in need of replacing and the task of paying for a new one were the main reasons for the move. It didn’t make sense to spend in this economic climate.

Another reason was to have the long jump, triple jump and pole vault be part of the meets. They are in the state meet but can’t be held at the Expo because of building limitations.

Also, races will now be in meters to mirror the state meet. Over the years, the Southwestern Maine Track League added races like the 200, 400 and 800 meters to be more like the state meet, but the dashes and hurdles were in yards, along with the 300 and the 600. Those records will be retired and before long, forgotten, said the coaches.

“It was a combination of things,” said Nilsen. “This discussion about going to USM has been going on for several years. Going to USM would offer all of the events that are at the state meet. The schools weren’t in a financial position to replace the track. It’s anybody’s guess what those costs would be.”

A committee had been formed to determine the amount it would cost to replace the Expo track.

High school meets at the Expo, which began in 1924, were unique. The league championship meet used to attract standing-room-only crowds and although attendance has fallen, it’s still one of the best high school sporting events to watch. Spectators were on top of the action and the banked turns added to the excitement.

“The Portland Expo was part of the running community,” said Tom Blake of South Portland, the meet director for the SMAA boys’ and girls’ meets.

Blake estimated the track, used since 1959, had one more season left in it.

“Every year we had to replace a portion of the track. We’ve had to stop the competition and sometimes keep it together with duct tape,” he said.

“I’ve been going to track meets there since 1966. I definitely have feelings. One of them is sadness. You either love the Expo or hate it. Many will be disappointed, a handful will be elated. It was a tough decision for the athletic directors but I respect it. You want to provide the best possible facility for our youngsters. As a meet director, I want to do my best to make it a smooth transition. Who knows? We may pick up some kids who like to long- or triple- jump.”

Veteran coaches such as Wilkinson, Dick Kress and Bruce Koharian, both of Deering, and Carroll Nappi of Portland don’t like the switch.

“We knew there was a possibility of going to USM,” said Kress. “The old guard is not too happy. The newcomers think the Expo is antiquated. We love the Expo. It never hurt us running at the Expo. The SMAA has done very well in state meets. I don’t think the crowd atmosphere will be anywhere near what the Expo was.”

Kress also said running at the Expo toughened kids up because of the importance of winning the first corner.

Koharian said the move could mean fewer Deering and Portland kids coming out for track.

“They could walk to the meets if they had do. Now we’ll have to take buses,” he said. “A lot of these kids work. Running at the Expo, they could fit track and work in.”

An advantage in going to USM is cost, although bus fees will be an expense.

Besides not having to pay for a new track down the road, the SMAA will save in rental fees. According to the city of Portland web site, the Expo costs $2,585 to rent per day.

“The rental fee at USM is less than at the Expo,” said Todd Sampson, the Westbrook High AD and the league’s track liaison. “That was a factor in our decision.”

Moving to USM means the SMAA regular season will start in December rather than the first Saturday in January.

Track preseason practice always was delayed because of that, but now it will start at the same time as the other winter sports.

One drawback in moving is that the SMAA will have to share the facility with the Western Maine Conference and with teams from USM.

“Four of our six meets will be on Saturday,” said Sampson. “We’ll have to split up the other meets during the week.”

The Greater Portland Junior High Track League will run this winter at the Expo but after that, it’s not known where the meets will be or if the league will continue to exist.

Staff Writer Tom Chard can be contacted at 791-6419 or at: [email protected]

Twitter: TomChardPPH