EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

June 25, 2013

Mayor: Councilors didn't do homework on stadium grant

Email suggests they should have known state grant can't be used for stadium repairs

By Shawn Regan
sregan@eagletribune.com

---- — HAVERHILL — Mayor James Fiorentini said he has received confirmation that Trinity Stadium does not qualify for a state program that provides up to $400,000 a year for improvements to public parks and recreational areas.

And he forwarded an email to The Eagle-Tribune that suggests all nine city councilors should have known that too — before they voted unanimously last week to push him to apply for a Parkland Acquisitions and Renovations for Communities grant, PARC for short, in the name of the Lincoln Avenue sports complex.

Since 2006, the state has provided about $3 million for stadium work, most of it to repair two of the five grandstand sections, fix structural problems and to replace the grass field with artificial turf.

But at least another $2 million is needed to repair crumbling sections of the stadium grandstand and install new lights, city officials said.

High school Athletic Director Tom O’Brien, who is also chairman of the Stadium Commission, said the facility is so poorly illuminated that he no longer allows lacrosse games to be played there at night and that there is “barely enough light to meet the requirements for baseball.” The commission oversees the 77-year-old sports complex, formerly called Haverhill Stadium.

At last week’s council meeting, Councilor William Ryan strongly urged the mayor to apply for the PARC grant and then blame the council and Stadium Commission if the application is rejected.

“We are all on record that this is what we want,” Ryan told the mayor. “You’ll be off the hook if it’s rejected. All you have to do is submit the application.”

Fiorentini responded that he didn’t want to be “off the hook.”

After the back-and-forth between Ryan and the mayor, the council voted 9-0 to ask Fiorentini to apply for the grant for stadium repairs.

The mayor said he planned to apply for a PARC grant, but not on behalf of the stadium. He said he wants it to make improvements to Winnekenni Park and the rail trail the city is developing along the Bradford side of the Merrimack River. He said applying for the grant for an inappropriate project, such as making repairs to a sports complex, could jeopardize the city’s chances of receiving any money at all from the program.

After the meeting, the mayor said he received confirmation from state officials and a member of his rail trail advisory committee that the stadium is not eligible for PARC funds.

Larry Olasky, a member of the Friends of the Bradford Rail Trail committee, sent each city councilor an email after their vote last week, asking if any of them reviewed information he sent them a month ago that explained the “guidelines and priorities” for the PARC grant program.

“Did anyone look at the documents?” Olasky wrote. “I even called the person at the state who gave some workshops about the state funding opportunities. She said the stadium was not eligible for a PARC grant.” The last sentence was in bold-face type.

Fiorentini passed along Olasky’s email to The Eagle-Tribune, but the mayor could not be reached yesterday to comment on this story.

In a brief phone interview yesterday, Olasky said he spoke to a state official in charge of the PARC program and other state grants, and that she confirmed to him that the stadium does not qualify for the program.

“My concern is that if the city applies for a grant we are not eligible for, the state is going to think we don’t know what we are doing and we won’t get anything,” Olasky said.

David Van Dam, the mayor’s aide, said Fiorentini remains committed to finding money to finish making repairs to the stadium. Van Dam said the administration is exploring several options to pay for repairs, including applying for an energy grant for new lights.

“No one wants to see the stadium finished more than me,” the mayor told councilors last week. “But I don’t want to raise the public’s expectations for the stadium. I prefer to under-promise and over-deliver.”

O’Brien, the athletic director, said requests to rent the stadium by sports teams, summer camps and for events have taken off since the initial repairs and artificial turf was installed two years ago. But he added there’s great potential for further growth once the renovation is completed.

He said other parts of the facility that need to be repaired include the brick wall that surrounds the stadium, locker rooms and the parking lot. The stadium also needs a new press box that must include an elevator due to accessibility laws, he said.

The unrenovated sections of grandstand are crumbling and closed to the public. The cost of finishing the entire project is $4.7 million, O’Brien said.

O’Brien said the city’s commitment to the stadium in the annual budget has fallen to just $9,000 per year, barely enough to pay the electric bills, he said.

The stadium generates $40,000 per year in advertising revenue and $25,000 in rental income, O’Brien said. About a third of that money pays for operating costs and the rest goes into the renovation fund, he said.