2017-04-20 / Front Page

Residents question field closing

By Garrick Hoffman
Staff Writer

Waterhouse Field is closed indefinitely due un-optimal bleacher conditions that were deemed unsafe in a field study. Some Biddeford residents have expressed criticisms of its closure. (Garrick Hoffman photo) Waterhouse Field is closed indefinitely due un-optimal bleacher conditions that were deemed unsafe in a field study. Some Biddeford residents have expressed criticisms of its closure. (Garrick Hoffman photo) BIDDEFORD – Former Biddeford Athletic Association President Ralph Toussaint is questioning how Waterhouse Field has been handled throughout the years. The field, which is closed indefinitely, will not be host graduation or the Lobster Bowl this year.

The now-dismantled Waterhouse Field Committee estimated earlier this year that upgrades to the field could cost $3.4 million to $5.5 million, depending on the magnitude of chosen upgrades. Consultants from Weston & Sampson, the firm hired to study the field, said in a report that they recommend the city purchase and install new bleachers after they were deemed unsafe. They also recommended replacing the field’s light poles based on visual observations, which could have internal and underground rot that is not visible.

The home side bleachers of Waterhouse Field from the visitors’ side bleachers. The bleachers, which are more than 20 years old, were designed for indoor use only. (Garrick Hoffman photo) The home side bleachers of Waterhouse Field from the visitors’ side bleachers. The bleachers, which are more than 20 years old, were designed for indoor use only. (Garrick Hoffman photo) Toussaint, a Biddeford resident who was president for Biddeford Athletic Association – a volunteer organization with a mission to support Biddeford athletics – from 2008 to 2012, said the languishing of Waterhouse Field is due to the failure of higher-ups in the Biddeford community, including Superintendent Jeremy Ray, athletic director Dennis Walton and high school principal Jeremy Sirois. He described the relocation of Biddeford High School’s graduation ceremony and the loss of the field for the Lobster Bowl a “sad, sad thing.”

“Coach Landry would be turning in his grave if he saw what’s going on,” Toussaint said, referring to previous football coach Mike Landry who won six state championships in his 17-year career. “People need to be held accountable. That man made a hell of a football program and brought our community to the Tiger Pride, and now it’s an embarrassment. Who is responsible for doing this to our field? Who’s accountable? Somebody’s responsible. Somebody needs to answer to this.”

Toussaint in previous years volunteered to maintain the field, has coached and played football on the field and has three children in Biddeford schools. He said he addressed problems about the field in June 2013 at a Waterhouse Committee meeting. He made a motion at the time regarding concerns about safety of the bleachers and wanting to repair them at a low cost, but was told by Ray that Ray didn’t want to do the repairs or spend money on the field because he instead sought a new field, Toussaint said. He said he and other members of the Biddeford Athletic Association were told not to speak about concerns about the field so a new, more extravagant field with artificial turf could be built in future years to generate revenue in summer by renting it out.

He also said Ray wanted to eliminate the Biddeford Athletic Association, have complete control of its money and have high school students maintain operations.

“Why wasn’t after that meeting (in 2013) there money allocated to bring this field up to par?” he said. “(Ray) told me, ‘Ralph, if I ask for gold and we get silver or bronze, we’re way ahead of the game,’” Toussaint said. “I said we didn’t need gold; we just need to fix up certain things at this field. They wanted a Taj Mahal.”

He said he worried Ray wasn’t looking out for Biddeford athletes’ or tax payers’ best interest.

When asked about Toussaint’s remarks and theories, Ray said he would not comment. However, he said he wishes for Biddeford students to have access to adequate means for sports.

“Are kids in Biddeford any less deserving than students in other towns to play on an equitable surface?” he asked. “My feeling is the kids in Biddeford deserve the same opportunities as kids in other districts. Our goal is to have an equitable surface for all of our student athletes. Artificial turf may be an option. I want something that’s equitable for all students. As superintendent there’s things I’d like to see because I’m an advocate for what students to have opportunity on, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to get that. People think I’m trying to do or not trying to do something, (but) I’m trying to ensure kids have an equitable surface. It’s not just about football – it’s all six of our sports teams and middle school teams.”

Biddeford resident Matt Lauzon, who in 2016 ran for the Maine House of Representatives but lost to Rep. Marty Grohman, helped Missy Nolette, also of Biddeford, on Saturday, April 15 with efforts to gather signatures to hold a general citizens meeting about the field. Lauzon also has pending lawsuits against the city of Biddeford and its police chief.

“If we have money for a garage we have money for the field,” Nolette said.

Under Biddeford’s city charter, registered voters can call a general citizens meeting after gathering at least 100 signatures. If achieved, the petition requires city officials to be present at the meeting. A tenet was installed in the city charter after Biddeford residents voted in November to approve it, which allows a moderator to be selected by a majority vote of citizens who attend the meeting. In this case, if at least 100 signatures are gathered, a general meeting will be called and citizen attendees will vote for a moderator, making it the first of its kind since residents approved the change.

“My interest is making sure residents of Biddeford are heard,” Lauzon said. “Many people I met campaigning last year are asking for help. They’re frustrated with what’s happening at Waterhouse and confused about the parking garage. I reviewed the city charter and decided the best way to help people would be to give them a venue to have their voices heard. It’s the least I can do as a member of the community.”

As of Monday, April 17, about 70 signatures were gathered.

At a school board meeting Tuesday, April 11, Ray announced that as a result of a study conducted by Weston & Sampson – a multidisciplinary and employee-owned firm based in Peabody, Massachusetts hired earlier this year to study Biddeford’s fields for $27,000 – Waterhouse has to close based on safety issues with its bleachers.

“This might be a shock to several people within the community . . . This certainly will spark a lot of conversation in the community,” Ray said. “It’ll create some challenges that we’ll need to work through.”

The Waterhouse Field Committee, an ad-hoc committee authorized by the school board last year, evaluated the options for renovations at Waterhouse Field and estimated repairs could cost between $3.4 million and $5.5 million, depending on the magnitude of repairs. The committee, composed of 25 members, was dismantled in January.

Ray said Walton contacted University of New England to request use of its turf for all high and middle school girls and boys lacrosse for spring. The university will allow the teams to use it for free.

Ray said the report he received from Weston & Sampson indicates the bleachers and press box structure should be closed pending further analysis. The report described the bleachers being in “overall fair to poor condition,” although it’s unclear what the scale this is on.

The report indicated damaged frames on the south end of the home bleachers, deteriorated wood and light to moderate corrosion in their steel truss frames. The visitors’ bleachers have buckled truss framing that may be a result of settling.

Wooden light poles on the field, which Ray said are 32 years old, could have internal and underground rot that is not visible, according to the report. Due to freezing temperatures, officials at Weston & Sampson were not able to probe for signs of deterioration and rot, but based on observations and recommendations to replace bleacher structures, they recommend replacing the light poles.

The study was a structural evaluation, not a structural analysis. A structural evaluation is limited to visual observations, whereas a structural analysis would require a detailed field investigation to create structural plans, according to the report, and could cost $40,000 to $50,000 and would probably lead to the same results, Ray said. Continued use of the bleacher press box structures is not recommended without a complete structural analysis and substantial rehabilitation, according to the report.

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

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

The school board will make determinations about what to do for fall sports teams, Ray said, and could take an unknown amount of time. It will consider renting fields, but this will likely be costly, Ray said.

“This is where we’re at, and we cannot risk the safety of people on those bleachers,” Ray said.

As a result, graduation will not take place on Waterhouse Field. Instead, it will likely be held in Tiger Gym at Biddeford High School, where graduation is typically held in the event of adverse weather.

Ray said he will look into what to do about dismantling the bleachers. They could have value, he said, which could offset demolition costs.

Ray said issues with the bleachers dates back to 2008, when Biddeford Athletic Association President Jim Butler sent a letter to Jim Godbout, then-president of the Waterhouse Field Association, on Jan. 24 of that year. The letter addressed concerns about the safety of the bleachers, and a wish to absolve the Biddeford Athletic Association from any responsibility because of its dismal state, saying many improvements and upgrades are needed – particularly on the visitors’ side bleachers – despite more than $2,000 that was put into the home side bleachers for maintenance and improvement in 2007.

“What kind of structural issues do you make to 30-yearold bleachers made for indoor use sitting outside?” Ray said. “How much money was put into the school department by the city to Waterhouse Field when it first became an issue? You can’t just go and replace all those boards; you have to bring the entire structure up to code. If you try to add weight, structural issues won’t support it. They’re not designed to add certain elements.”

Waterhouse Field is owned by the Waterhouse family and leased to the city for $1 annually, under the conditions that Biddeford maintains the field.

The Biddeford Athletic Association was designed in the 1970s to raise funds for sports-related costs so taxpayers could be relieved of some of them, Toussaint said. It was also formed to maintain Waterhouse Field, but Toussaint believes it is in the midst of deteriorating because people have become frustrated with turmoil within the city.

Ray refuted this and said the Biddeford Athletic Association is “still very active,” although volunteerism isn’t what it was about 20 years ago.

“No money was ever allocated through the city – all through volunteers,” Toussaint said. “A lot of people put hard work into it. Old timers always said, don’t ever let city have control . . . Now (the city wants) to spend $5 million from taxpayers when they can’t maintain the field already.”

Biddeford Athletic Association President Jerry Lapierre was unavailable for comment by deadline. There is no longer a phone number listed on the association’s homepage, and a call to the number listed on Google is sent to a wrong number.

Toussaint said he supports making necessary repairs to the field, but that his principal concern is holding people accountable for enabling it to reach the state it’s in.

“I’m telling you, it was in the intention of trying to build something and pulling a fast one over the taxpayers. If the taxpayers only knew what was going on at Waterhouse Field and how the city didn’t put money into this field,” Toussaint said. “It’s time to start holding these big guys accountable. We as a community need to take this back.”

Other members of the community have likewise expressed criticisms.

“I think what they’re doing to the field is a joke,” said Biddeford resident Ron Therrien, who used to play on the field and has two nephews in the school district who play football. “Fix the bleachers, put money into that, put money into lights. City hall was supposed to take care of (the bleachers) over the years. So whose fault is that? Why do you wait for the last minute? I don’t mind them putting money into it. They do need to put money into the field. They should have kept fixing the things when they had to.”

School Committee member Lisa Vadnais said she was glad the study by Weston & Sampson’s was conducted and that it was well done.

“I’m glad we went through with the study because I think if we hadn’t and had made small investments, we would be holding graduation there, which wouldn’t be a good idea with the conditions of bleachers,” she said.

Ray said Weston & Sampson will present their report to the public at 6:30 p.m., Monday, May 1 at the Biddeford High Little Theater. The presentation will include Weston & Sampson’s opinions and recommendations generated from their studies – which include all of Biddeford’s fields – as well as results from surveys they issued to the community.

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