By Douglas Moser
---- — METHUEN — Simmering tension between Mayor Stephen Zanni and a group of athletic supporters over the pace of a project to rebuild a stadium clubhouse bubbled over publicly Monday just as new funding was announced.
The group, the Methuen Athletic Improvement Committee, used their Facebook page earlier this month to press Zanni and the City Council into picking up the pace on rebuilding the athletes' clubhouse at Nicholson Stadium, where the Methuen High School football, lacrosse and track squads compete.
On March 3, they pointed to a recent announcement by the private Central Catholic High School in Lawrence that it will rebuild its stadium, complete with new synthetic turf, long a goal of athletic boosters in Methuen.
"It is frustrating that Methuen will be the only town in the (Merrimack Valley Conference) without turf," the group wrote in a post. "The only time our kids will play on a mud bowl next season will be at our own home games. The city owns Nicholson Stadium (not the school department). The truth is that the condition of the stadium is a direct reflection of our mayor and city council. Our kids have nothing to do with the frivolous law suits, political bickering and lethargy shown by the city officials."
The group also posted pictures of worn-looking storage units at the stadium used for storage and a space for changing clothes.
Members started a petition urging the mayor and council to make improvements to the field, clubhouse and bathrooms. The petition, on the website change.org, has 360 supporters, though it is unclear how those signatures are verified.
Zanni pushed back at Monday's School Committee meeting against "naysayers" who accused him and the council of dawdling, though he did not specifically name a group.
"People are going out saying we’re dragging our feet," he said. "I was the one who instituted this program from the get go."
Zanni then announced that the billboard and media company Clear Channel will pay the city $200,000, an upfront lump sum of the next 10 years' worth of annual payments the company would make for operating a digital billboard. He also said he is finalizing another $300,000 payment from a private source.
"You've got a lot of naysayers out there. I don't see what they've raised," he said.
That money is in addition to a $500,000 state grant the city received last year for the clubhouse.
Methuen Athletic Improvement Committee was formed in August to raise money for the stadium project, and has advocated that the city issue a bond to fund a range of improvements to the stadium, including the clubhouse, the field and the bleachers, among other things. Zanni has resisted asking the city to borrow money for the project, saying the funds can be raised if the project is broken into pieces.
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