By Shawn Regan
---- — HAVERHILL — City Council was right, and the stadium is about to reap the rewards.
Haverhill has received $400,000 to replace old and poor lighting and repair the worst of several crumbling sections of grandstand at Trinity Stadium. The money is coming from the state’s Parkland Acquisitions and Renovations for Communities program —PARC for short.
High school Athletic Director Tom O’Brien, who is also chairman of the Stadium Commission, has 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 on Lincoln Avenue, formerly called Haverhill Stadium.
The city’s application for the money was the source of political tension during the summer, when Councilor William Ryan and the rest of the council pushed Mayor James Fiorentini to seek the grant.
At the time, the mayor said he was not sure the stadium would qualify for the program and that he was considering applying for a PARC grant for other projects. He mentioned the need for improvements to Winnekenni Park and the rail trail recreational pathway the city is developing on the Bradford side of the Merrimack River opposite downtown.
In June, Ryan strongly urged the mayor to apply for the PARC grant for the stadium and then blame the council and Stadium Commission if the application was rejected.
“We are all on record that this is what we want,” Ryan told the mayor at the June meeting. “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 the mayor to apply for the grant for the stadium.
Fiorentini, who eventually decided to apply for the stadium grant, said restoring the structure has always been among his top priorities.
“Haverhill Stadium, constructed during the Depression, is one of Haverhill’s great gems,” the mayor said after learning the city is to receive the $400,000 from the state to rehabilitate the structure. “These funds will be used to restore it to its original glory.”
Since 2006, the state has provided about $3.4 million for repairs and improvements to the stadium, most of it to repair two of the five grandstand sections, fix structural problems and 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, officials said.
A press release from Haverhill’s legislative delegation said the $400,000 is to be used for new lights and grandstand repairs.
“New lighting will improve the overall safety and usage of the fields, extending the hours in which the fields can be used,” the release said. “Another portion of the funding will be used to repair and update the crumbling portions of the grandstand, including the addition of a row of (handicapped accessible) seating.”
“I am thankful that Secretary Sullivan recognized the importance that these improvements to the stadium will have for the entire region,” said state Rep. Brian Dempsey, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.
Sen. Kathleen O’Connor Ives, D-Newburyport, said the improvements will result in “a modernized sports venue to serve as a hub for community and athletic events and add to the city’s amenities that make Haverhill a draw to visitors near and far.” O’Connor Ives is Senate chairman of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Tourism, Arts and Cultural Development.
State reps. Diana Dizoglio, Linda Dean Campbell and Lenny Mirra also supported the grant, the release said.
O’Brien, Haverhill’s high school 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. He said there’s great potential for further growth once the renovation is completed.
O’Brien said other parts of the facility that need repairs include the brick wall surrounding 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 told councilors last summer.
The stadium hosts high school baseball, football and soccer games, as well as community events such as the Fourth of July celebration, Haverhill High School graduation and concerts and festivals.
It also boasts an impressive history. The New England Patriots played their first exhibition game at the stadium in 1960, and legend has it that professional baseball players Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig were at events there.
The origins of the stadium go back to 1916, when athletic fields and wooden bleachers were built there. In 1936, a brick wall was built to surround the fields, and a concrete grandstand was erected. The bricks that were used to build the wall were salvaged from the Lennox and Briggs factory in Haverhill, which burned in 1935, and the Hilliard and Tabor factory, which was abandoned.