BIDDEFORD — An engineering firm hired by the school department to assess the city’s playing fields recommends that Biddeford spend $6 million to improve fields and reopen the iconic Waterhouse Field.

The recommended improvements would address overuse of playing surfaces, inequality in field use and fix the safety issues that led to the closure last month of Waterhouse Field, according to representatives of Weston & Sampson, who spoke to more than 100 residents and city and school leaders Monday night.

The meeting was the first public presentation about the condition of the city’s sports fields since the closure of Waterhouse Field was announced. The decision to close the field because of unsafe bleachers was made after a report about Waterhouse from Weston & Sampson of Foxborough, Massachusetts, which was hired by the school department for $25,000 to study all playing fields in the city.

Superintendent Jeremy Ray announced April 11 that Waterhouse Field was closed for the immediate future because an independent study by Weston & Sampson found the bleachers were unsafe. The condition of the 88-year-old field and its bleachers has been a citywide concern for several years, long before Ray’s announcement. Last fall, the city’s code enforcement officer closed the end zone bleachers because of their condition.

The closure of the field prompted an emotional reaction from many city residents who want to see it fixed and reopened, but caused others to question how much the city should spend there. The field is owned by the Waterhouse Field Alumni Association and leased to the city for $1 a year.

About $300,000 has been raised for field repairs, school officials said.

Cheri Ruane of Weston & Sampson said the citywide study of recreation fields – which included a survey of residents and public meetings – showed that all playing fields are maxed out for use except for Waterhouse, which is only used for games for three sports. The key issues identified included a need to address gender equity because boys’ teams tend to play on better fields, she said.

Other key issues include equity among sports, Americans with Disabilities Act compliance, parking, the condition of buildings and the condition of bleachers and lighting at Waterhouse Field.

A plan to address top priorities calls for the city to spend a total of $6 million to make improvements at Waterhouse Field ($2.5 million), the high school track and field complex ($2.14 million), Doran Field ($790,000) and Biddeford Intermediate School ($480,000). The city could also consider future field expansion and improvements at Rotary Park, Ruane said.

City and school officials will use the report and recommendations as they discuss what improvements to make and how to pay for them.

After the presentation, several residents urged school and city officials to prioritize reopening Waterhouse Field.

Jim Godbout, president of the Waterhouse Field Alumni Association, said the time has come for the city to take action and address the issues at Waterhouse Field. He said it is sad to see the field in disrepair after he and other volunteers spent years maintaining it.

“Kids need a good, solid place to perform athletics and Waterhouse Field is the place to do it,” he said. “Do we need the Taj Mahal? No.”

Ralph Toussaint, former president of the Biddeford Athletic Association, questioned why the city hadn’t maintained the fields and whether it is safe to use artificial turf as a playing surface. He said he is “ashamed” of the condition of Waterhouse Field.

“Coach Landry must be rolling in his grave,” he said, referring to the beloved coach who led Biddeford to six state football championships.

A separate meeting related to Waterhouse Field will be held in response to a petition circulated by Biddeford resident Missy Nolette-Bald under a city charter provision that allows residents to call a general meeting of citizens with city officials. The City Council is expected Tuesday to set a date for that meeting.

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

[email protected]

Twitter: grahamgillian

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