By Shawn Regan
---- — HAVERHILL — City Council is pushing the mayor to find $1.9 million to repair crumbling sections of grandstand and install new lights at Trinity Stadium.
Tom O’Brien, chairman of the Stadium Commission and the high school athletic director, told councilors last night that the improvements would eventually pay for themselves by boosting the 77-year-old facility’s rental potential and transforming it into one of the premier sports venues in New England.
“Opportunities for Haverhill sports and recreational activities will be greatly enhanced and organizers from all over New England will come to our great community to use this great facility,” O’Brien said. “And it’s great for the city’s economy to have all these out of town visitors coming here.”
O’Brien said replacing the stadium lights are the top priority. He said it is so poorly illuminated that he no longer allows lacrosse games to be played there at night.
“There’s barely enough light to meet the requirements for baseball,” O’Brien said. “To attract semi-pro and college teams, we need to improve the lighting.”
The council invited O’Brien to brief them on the status of the stadium renovation after some councilors suggested it has stalled. Renovations began in 2006 and the state has provided about $3 million since then, most of it to repair two of the five grandstand sections, fix structural problems and replace the grass field with artificial turf.
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 O’Brien said there is great potential for further growth once the renovation is completed.
Other parts of the facility that need to be repaired, O’Brien said, include the brick wall that surrounds the stadium, locker rooms and 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 closed and crumbling, O’Brien said.
“The bleachers are an eyesore driving by,” he said. “And that’s unfortunate because it prevents many people from seeing the beauty inside.”
The price tag for finishing the entire project is $4,765,795, according to information provided by O’Brien last night.
O’Brien said the Stadium Commission has identified a state grant for improving parks that could provide up to $400,000 annually for the project. He said the city must apply for the grant by July, but that Mayor James Fiorentini has been noncommittal on targeting the stadium with the park grant.
Councilor Michael Hart said stadium funding has suffered as the result of the city’s budget problems.
“In our terrible budget years with drastic holes to fill, the stadium’s budget was cut,” Hart said.
Councilor John Michitson said now might be the time to reverse that trend.
“We should ask the mayor to put some money in the capital improvement budget and maintenance budget for the stadium,” Michitson said. “There’s a culture developing in this city of putting the stadium and some other city properties at the bottom on the priority list.
O’Brien said the city’s commitment to the stadium in the budget has fallen to just $9,000 per year, barely enough to pay the electric bills, he said.
He said the stadium generates $40,000 per year in advertising revenue and $25,000 in rental income. About a third of that money pays for operating costs and the rest goes into the renovation fund, O’Brien said.
Council President Robert Scatamacchia suggested the city should consider borrowing money to finish the renovation. He asked O’Brien if he thought the city could pay back the loan with increased rental and advertising revenue from an improved stadium.
“Not right away, but over the long-term, I do,” O’Brien said. “I believe it could generate revenue to pay off a 20-year loan.”
Councilor William Ryan, the council’s representative to the Stadium Commission, said the mayor is the key to finishing the renovation.
“I believe we’ll get this grant if we apply,” Ryan said of the state’s park grant. “But we need to get the mayor on board.”
In a phone interview after the meeting, Fiorentini said he is open to applying for the grant on behalf of the Stadium Commission, but that he has not yet made up his mind. He said there are other worthy projects vying for that money, such as improvements the council has been pushing for at Winnekenni Park.