Biddeford’s iconic Waterhouse Field, home to the annual Maine Shrine Lobster Bowl Classic, is in such need of upgrades that city officials have discussed whether local teams can continue playing there.

Biddeford High’s football, boys’ and girls’ soccer teams and boys’ and girls’ lacrosse teams play at 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.

The field needs new bleachers, lights, light poles, new locker rooms and a scoreboard and sound system. The grass field also needs to be replaced as it is not wide enough to be used as a regulation soccer and lacrosse field. Officials are looking to replace it with an artificial surface.

Estimated costs for such a project run from between $3.4 million to $5.5 million, depending on the extent of the upgrades. Some of the repairs, such as the locker rooms, could be delayed. Other upgrades, such as the bleachers, lights and field, have a more immediate need. Some of the money would be secured by fundraising, which is ongoing, but much of it would likely come from a city bond voted on by Biddeford residents.

Don Wilson, a former teacher, coach and athletic director at Biddeford High, echoed the sentiments of many Biddeford fans when he said Waterhouse Field is a special place.

“If they can come up with a better facility for the athletes at the high school and middle school, I’m all for it,” he said. “But would I like to see things done to Waterhouse Field instead of a new facility? Yes.”

Many fans love the intimacy of Waterhouse Field, which is settled into a neighborhood on the corner of West and Prospect streets. There is no track surrounding the playing field, allowing bleachers and fans within 20 feet of the sidelines.

“It’s almost along the lines of Fenway Park for high school stadiums,” said John McKeown, a star football player for the Tigers in the early 1980s. “It’s really a shrine.”

Mayor Alan Casavant, who opposes any move from Waterhouse Field, said, “In my eyes, and in the eyes of most people in Biddeford, it is iconic. A lot of history has occurred there.”

Biddeford Superintendent Jeremy Ray said the school department said there is no imminent vote on the facility’s future, only that “the clock is ticking toward making a decision.”

He added that the school department will conduct a comprehensive study of all the city’s athletic fields. That study, he said, will be done by an outside company and completed in the spring.

“We have to understand, what are the needs of the community?” said Ray. “Are the locations (of the fields) correct? Do we have enough of them? Are we using them right?”

The Biddeford School Department owns just one field used by high school teams: Football practices and track meets are held at Brother Richard Hebert Field, across the street from the school. The high school baseball teams play at St. Louis Field and the softball and field hockey teams play at Doran Field, both venues owned by the city. Waterhouse Field is also used by the city’s middle school teams and by many youth programs.

Ray said the school board has an obligation to provide quality fields to all its students, not just those who play at Waterhouse, as well as an obligation to be fiscally responsible in any renovations.

The school board authorized a 25-member panel called the Waterhouse Advisory Committee to study the options for renovation at Waterhouse Field. The committee provided three options that would cost between $3.4 million and $5.5 million, depending on how deep the repairs go. Each option would decrease the seating from 5,000 to about 4,000 and include an artificial surface, which would allow the field hockey team to play its games at Waterhouse Field and provide a regulation field for soccer and lacrosse.

“We want to look at and hopefully provide equitable facilities for all of our sports,” said Ray.

But there is a finite number of years left for Waterhouse Field, he added. The Waterhouse Advisory Committee estimates a two-to-four year lifespan for the current bleachers and light poles, which were installed in 1985. This fall, the bleachers in the end zone were closed off to fans for safety concerns. And at times, the sound system failed to work during games.

According to the Biddeford School Department website, which includes a link to the renovation project, about $282,000 has been raised.

In the past, renovations were always handled by volunteers and the Biddeford Athletic Association, a booster group. But as the school’s enrollment has dwindled and the football team has had less success, the number of volunteers decreased.

Jim Godbout, president of the Waterhouse Field Alumni Association, said the BAA would annually raise between $100,000 and $150,000 for repairs and renovations. “But for years they haven’t been as successful in their fundraising,” he said.

Fewer fans have been attending the games recently. In the past, it was not unusual to have a crowd of 3,000 to 4,000. Now the crowds are considerably smaller, though the attendance did increase this year when the Tigers reached the playoffs.

If the renovation cannot be funded through donations it would go to a bond issue.

“Quite frankly,” said Biddeford football Coach Brian Curit, “a commitment is needed from the people of Biddeford. For a long time the BAA did a lot of work and everything was done by volunteers to an incredibly high standard. But volunteerism has dropped significantly.

“And when everyone looks at what needs to be done, I hope they realize we have a gem and something needs to be done to make it great again.”

Robert Desjardins, who has been attending games at Waterhouse Field since the 1960s and goes to just about every Biddeford home athletic event, isn’t sure a bond would pass.

“There are a lot of people who don’t like their taxes going up,” said the 74-year-old Desjardins. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. But I think we’ve got to do something quick.”

At stake also is the Maine Shrine Lobster Bowl Classic, a charity football game played each summer at Waterhouse Field since 1991. The Shriners are not charged a rental fee. Dennis Walton, the Biddeford High athletic director, said he was told by Shrine officials that the field would need a capacity of at least 4,000 seats to continue hosting the game. At least one of the options decreases the seating capacity to 3,400.

“A lot of people feel that we should have just enough seats for high school events,” said Walton. “If other events go away because of the smaller bleachers, they go away.”

Rick Hersom, vice-president of the board of governors that oversees the Lobster Bowl, said he is certain that Biddeford will get the project done.

“I’m excited with everything that is happening there,” he said. “If it goes through, it’s going to be a beautiful place to continue playing there.”

And if it doesn’t?

“It would be tough for us,” said Hersom. “But I can’t see Biddeford not having football at Waterhouse Field.”

Casavant said the community needs to become more involved in the conversation and that the school board and city council need to work together on it.

“It’s in need of repair,” he said. “It’s going to cost a chunk of change and the city of Biddeford has to invest in it. You don’t see fields like Waterhouse anymore.

“And the sooner we do it and come to a decision, the better it is.”