Biddeford’s Waterhouse Field has been closed for the immediate future because a study found the bleachers unsafe. A separate study of possible renovations provided three options, with costs ranging from $3.4 million to $5.5 million, depending on the extent of repairs. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

In the two weeks since Biddeford’s Waterhouse Field was closed, the historic stadium’s future has been the talk of the town.

Hundreds of comments have been posted on the mayor’s Facebook page about the closure, a resident circulated a petition to hold a city meeting to discuss it, and officials are wading through the complex issues before deciding what to do next.

“It’s been a hot topic wherever you buy your coffee,” City Councilor Marc Lessard said last week during a budget committee meeting where he recounted his memories of sneaking into Waterhouse the night before football games to save seats in the bleachers.

The condition of the 88-year-old field and its bleachers has been a citywide concern for several years, long before the stadium was closed because of safety concerns.

Officials from the Biddeford Athletic Association, a booster group that raises money for athletics, first warned the Waterhouse Field Alumni Association nearly a decade ago that the aging bleachers were in rough shape. Last fall, the code enforcement office shut down the end zone bleachers after determining they were unsafe.

“Over the past couple years, as we talked about trying to get a renovation going or have a discussion about Waterhouse, there’s been very little (public) participation at meetings. That was part of our challenge,” school Superintendent Jeremy Ray said Monday.

Ray announced April 11 that the field was closed for the immediate future because an independent study had found the bleachers were unsafe.

Weston & Sampson of Foxborough, Massachusetts, hired by the School Department in December to study all playing fields in Biddeford, will present its findings at a meeting May 1 starting at 6:30 p.m. at the high school. Officials say having information from the study, which cost $25,000, will help as city leaders, the Biddeford Athletic Association and the Waterhouse Field Alumni Association discuss the stadium’s future.

“This is something we’ve been talking about for a while,” Ray said. “Now we are forced to make some decisions.”

The East team celebrates in 2013 after winning the Lobster Bowl at Waterhouse Field, which has hosted the all-star game since 1991. Because of safety issues, this year’s game has been moved to Thornton Academy. Staff photo by Jill Brady

THE START OF A CHERISHED STADIUM

The choices facing the city are complicated by financial, as well as emotional, issues.

Waterhouse Field is owned by a nonprofit – the Waterhouse Field Alumni Association – and has been leased to the city for $1 a year since 1973.

The field dates to 1929, when Alfred L. Waterhouse, a local hardware store worker, and several local investors purchased the site and built a playing field for schoolboys. Two years later, after several investor pledges went unpaid during the Depression and the field mortgage fell into default, Waterhouse poured his own money into the field. During the 1930s, he added fencing and lighting for evening football games.

The field was named for Waterhouse in 1954, even though he generally preferred that his contributions remain anonymous.

In the decades that followed, Waterhouse Field was home to 11 state championship teams, and since 1991 has hosted the Maine Shrine Lobster Bowl Classic, a football game for senior all-stars. The field – cherished in Biddeford, and in Maine high school football circles in general – is prized by those who love the intimate setting that allows fans to sit close to the action.

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

On Friday nights, thousands of fans dressed in black and orange packed the bleachers. In the heyday of Biddeford football in the 1980s and 1990s, the stadium, which at one time could hold 7,000 fans, was packed for every home game.

“I don’t think people understood that that was rare and unique,” Mayor Alan Casavant said. “Biddeford was a football town, no doubt about it.”

In the past 20 years, the student population in Biddeford has plummeted and attendance at football games is nowhere near what it once was, Casavant said. At the same time, the number of athletic association volunteers helping with maintenance dropped, and the association wasn’t raising as much money to help with repairs.

The bleachers at Waterhouse Field came to the city in the 1980s and 1990s and were used when they arrived. The first set, which now sits closest to the road, were bought from a high school in Massachusetts in 1985. A decade later, the other bleachers – designed to be used indoors – came to Biddeford from a Shriners organization in Massachusetts.

The intimate Waterhouse Field is prized both in Biddeford and in Maine high school football circles. “It’s really a shrine,” said John McKeown, who played for Biddeford in the early 1980s. Staff photo by Derek Davis

Concerns about the conditions of the bleachers go back to at least 2007, when the athletic association was notified of possible code compliance issues. In a January 2008 letter to the president of the Waterhouse alumni association, an athletic association official outlined safety concerns about the bleachers. The athletic association provided concessions and facilities services at the field and used proceeds to fund athletics at the high school.

Jim Butler, president of the athletic association at the time, said the group collectively decided the association’s purpose “is not that of maintaining and ensuring the safety compliance of these said bleachers.”

“Just last year we purchased more than $2,000 worth of paint and supplies to have the bleachers on the home side of the field maintained and improved,” he wrote in 2008. “However, there are still many improvements and upgrades needed, especially on the visitor’s side of the field.”

By 2013 there were structural twists in the framework of the bleachers, and Hussey Seating notified the city it would no longer do repairs at Waterhouse Field because the bleachers were not up to code, said Ray, the school superintendent.

In addition to the bleachers, the playing surface, lights and locker rooms also have needed repairs for a while.

MANY OPTIONS, HARD CHOICES AHEAD

Ray’s announcement about Waterhouse Field this month caused a swift emotional reaction, but also generated confusion among residents about who owns the field and who should pay for maintenance and repairs. Some residents want the field upgraded, others think a few repairs could go a long way, and still others question whether the city should invest millions of dollars in a property it doesn’t own.

“People are shocked that this happened,” said Casavant, who opposes permanently closing Waterhouse. “It’s not going to be an easy solution because there’s such a wide range of what people want and desire.”

A committee authorized by the school board to study possible Waterhouse renovations last year provided three options, with costs ranging from $3.4 million to $5.5 million, depending on the extent of repairs. 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.

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

The officials are looking into options for getting temporary bleachers to use in the fall, but no decisions have been made. The high school and middle school lacrosse teams will play at the University of New England this spring, and the Lobster Bowl will move across the Saco River to Thornton Academy. School officials are still considering options for Biddeford High School graduation, which is traditionally held at Waterhouse if the weather cooperates.

Missy Nolette-Bald, a Biddeford resident, submitted a petition to the city clerk this week calling for a general meeting of citizens to discuss several issues, including “neglect of Waterhouse Field and overzealous spending downtown.” City Clerk Carmen Morris said Monday afternoon that 99 of the 100 required signatures of registered voters had been submitted and she anticipated the final signature would soon be submitted by the petitioner. Nolette-Bald declined to speak to a reporter.

City Councilor Laura Seaver said during a meeting last week that the issues at Waterhouse are a long-term problem that came from years of neglect.

“I think it took a long time to get here and I don’t expect it to be fixed magically in the short term,” she said.

Both Casavant and Ray say the decision about the future of Waterhouse Field is one that can’t be rushed, and that it has to include discussions about the needs of all sports teams that use the stadium.

A representative of the Biddeford Athletic Association declined to comment, but Casavant said that group and the Waterhouse alumni association are in contact with the city about the field.

“There has to be a joint decision of some sort about what to do next,” Casavant said. “I think a strong and good community, when it recognizes a problem, pulls out all the stops to find a solution.”

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

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