2017-04-13 / Front Page

Under lock: Waterhouse Field closed indefinitely

By ALAN BENNETT
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD — Locks hang on the gates of Waterhouse Field, now that school officials have decided to shut down the venue following a report saying the bleachers are unsafe.

Weston & Sampson, an environmental consulting firm the School Department hired to conduct a $28,000 evaluation of the city’s major sporting facilities, has given school officials its initial evaluation of Waterhouse Field, saying the bleachers are unsafe and that they should be closed.

“This may be a shock to some in the community and will definitely create some challenges for us to work through … the bleachers at Waterhouse Field at this time are closed,” Superintendent Jeremy Ray announced at Tuesday’s School Committee meeting. “We will look for another place to do our activities moving forward.”

The future of Waterhouse Field has been a hot topic of conversation for months, following the dissolution of the Waterhouse Advisory Committee in January. The field, at the corner of West and Prospect streets, hasn’t been renovated in more than 20 years, and school officials say it needs vital upgrades in infrastructure for both aesthetic and safety reasons.

The field’s “home” side bleachers were purchased used in 1998, and the “visitor” stands were bought used in 1985. Both sets of bleachers were intended for indoor use, and have been repaired multiple times since their installation.

A third set of student bleachers was closed in fall 2016 because of structural concerns, being deemed unsafe by school officials.

Inspectors with Weston & Sampson said in their report the steel truss frames that support the “home” bleachers appear to have light to moderate corrosion, and in some spots appear to be damaged by impact. Evaluation of the seats revealed significant deterioration to the wooden planks, with some gaps in the wood exceeding four inches on the “visitor” side bleachers.

The "visitor" bleachers, they added, have buckled truss framing that appears to be the result of significant settling.

“Overall the bleachers are in fair to poor condition,” the consultants wrote. “Continued use of the bleacher press box structures is not recommended without a complete structural analysis and substantial rehabilitation. … a structural analysis would require a detailed field investigation.”

The consultants took particular issue with the structure of press boxes on both sides of the field, saying the visitor press box lacks vertical bracing to protect it from strong winds and seismic activity, “and should be closed.”

“In summary, the bleachers and press box structures should be closed pending further analysis,” the report says. “Even with favorable results from the structural analysis, substantial rehabilitation would be required and may be cost prohibitive when compared to a complete replacement of the bleachers.

“At this stage, it is our recommendation that the city purchase and install new bleachers to accommodate the future intended use at Waterhouse Field,” the report states.

Ray said Wednesday a structural analysis of the field may cost the department and city upward of $60,000, and would likely turn up with the same results as already presented.

“Even if there as a way to modify those bleachers to bring them up to code you’re talking hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Ray said before the School Committee on Tuesday. “It’d be like completely redoing a car that has a bad frame and bad motor.”

The field’s closure means the relocation of several Biddeford sports programs and Biddeford High School’s graduation activities, held on the field each June.

Ray said Wednesday the University of New England has stepped up to allow high school and middle school lacrosse to play on their turf field, free of charge, this spring while Biddeford school officials make decisions about what to do in the coming months.

“(UNE has) really bent over backwards for us, and the school department is extremely grateful to UNE and Jack McDonald, the athletic director, for being so willing to help out,” Ray said.

As for graduation, Ray said the department is looking at using the high school’s Tiger Gym — which has a capacity of 1,600 people — as a backup.

“We’ve got to have some conversations as a group to make determinations of what we do,” he said.

Ray said the decision to close Waterhouse Field did not come lightly, but safety was of priority.

“We needed to ensure student and community safety on those bleachers, and now we have recommendations that we need to follow and put into place,” he said. 

The decision to hire Weston & Sampson at all was a source of controversy within the community, with Mayor Alan Casavant even calling it a “waste of money” and “not rocket science” to evaluate the condition of the bleachers.

On Wednesday, Casavant said he still didn't support the total study of the city's fields, but said he was pleased to see the engineering work completed.

"The engineer's recommendation to close the bleachers forces us to do 'something,'" Casavant said in an email. "That is going to cost a considerable amount of money, but, of course, all possible options will cost a lot of money. What will need to be determined is the plan of action and the speed in which that plan can be executed."

Casavant attributed the state of Waterhouse Field to continued delays in renovations, blaming the city for not investing the money necessary to keep the field up to date.

"That problem is a direct result of the failure of the city to invest in its infrastructure," Casavant said. "Instead of doing appropriate maintenance and upkeep, projects were delayed, in order to protect the tax rate, to a following year. ... Here we are in 2017, and the cans for many projects, that were kicked down the road, are now at our doorstep."

Others praised the decision to invest in a fields study, saying the results of the study speak for themselves.

“I’m glad that we went through with the study because I think, if we hadn’t have done that we would’ve been holding graduation now and that would not have been a good plan with the condition of these bleachers,” said School Committee member Lisa Vadnais during the meeting Tuesday.

Ray also stressed Weston & Sampson has “zero connection” to Caleb Johnson Architects + Builders, the design firm first hired to complete possible renovation designs to Waterhouse Field in the past.

“(Weston & Sampson) is a group that is totally independent, does a lot of field studies all over New England and that’s why we selected them is because they were independent,” he said. “We wanted somebody who had no connection to the prior projects.”

As for the fate of Waterhouse Field, things are still up in the air.

“We will make some determinations about what we will do this fall,” Ray said publicly Tuesday. “This problem’s not going to be magically solved. The recommendation is that we must take action.”

A public meeting will take plact 6:30 p.m. May 1 at the high school's Little Theater to discuss the findings of the fields study.

— Staff Writer Alan Bennett can be contacted at 282-1535, ext. 329 or abennett@journaltribune.com.

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