HAVERHILL — For years, the city's student-athletes and coaches have pressed to have an artificial playing surface at Haverhill Stadium.

They've been stuck with a grass playing field that often turns to mud in the fall, while other Merrimack Valley communities enjoy the benefits an artificial surface offers, such as a longer playing season and safer footing.

The wait is over.

This fall, Haverhill High students and visiting teams will play on artificial turf similar to that which their new Athletic Director Garin Veris played on during his career in the National Football League.

"For the number of events at the stadium and the amount of play time the surface gets, it makes perfect sense to have an artificial surface," said Veris, who also serves as chairman of the Haverhill Stadium Commission and was a member of the New England Patriots team that went to the Super Bowl in January 1986. "We're probably the last community in the Merrimack Valley to get an artificial surface."

The commission has decided how it will spend the $2 million the state is giving Haverhill for stadium repairs and improvements. That decision was to install artificial turf, which is expected to cost about $1 million, and use the remainder of the money to repair the crumbling concrete stands.

Veris said the city is issuing a request for bids from engineering firms to create designs for the project and expects to be able to break ground for the new turf the day after Haverhill holds its annual July 4 celebration at the stadium.

"We'd like to have our football team be able to play its first home game on Sept. 17 (against Catholic Memorial High School) on the new surface," Veris said.

Former Athletic Director Peter Shanahan, who serves as an advisor to the Stadium Commission, said it should take about eight weeks to complete installation of the turf.

"We don't know what the timeframe will be on repairs to the stands," Shanahan said.

Veris is looking to the future and the many ways the community will benefit from the new playing surface.

With many other Merrimack Valley Conference schools already enjoying the benefits of artificial turf, officials in Haverhill say it is time for Hillies football, lacrosse, field hockey, soccer and baseball players to have it.

"The uses of an artificial turf field are limitless," Veris said. "Even in bad weather you could hold a boot camp for physical conditioning. I want the community to know it will serve a lot of purposes beyond the main sports."

Veris said an artificial playing surface will also mean an end to muddy football games in the fall and offer more solid footing for players, and will attract teams looking for a place to practice and hold tournaments.

The plan also includes replacing the baseball outfield with artificial turf, all the way up the infield. Veris said those details will not be worked out until design plans and cost estimates come in.

Veris said his committee is also looking at ways of tightening up security at the stadium after it was broken into sometime between late Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning.

Police said vandals kicked in a door at the concession stand and stole several cases of soda. They also broke a door to the ticket office and forced their way into the room, where the lights for night games are controlled. Damage was limited primarily to the doors, but stadium officials said they are concerned about the incident, especially as Haverhill prepares to make the $2 million in improvements.

The vandalism is the latest in a series of incidents at the stadium, which resulted in the installation of security cameras about a year ago and now has the city's Stadium Commission talking about adding more cameras.

Veris said the commission wants to make the stadium as safe as possible, and will be reviewing all aspects of stadium security, including determining if additional security cameras will be needed and if stronger locks will be required for doors.

He said police are still investigating the break.

Shanahan has said enhancing security at the stadium would probably make sense, especially when the improvements are completed.

He said Haverhill High football games used to draw as many as 6,000 fans to the stadium.

For many years, the stadium was the scene of well-attended Thanksgiving Day high-school football games between Haverhill and Manchester, N.H. Haverhill Stadium's use to the city is not restricted to sports.

Haverhill High graduation ceremonies take place there. Every Fourth of July, the stadium hosts one of the most popular fireworks displays in the area, with thousands of people showing up. The facility is also a popular venue for concerts and carnivals.

The stadium, built by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, has been hit by vandals and other troublemakers several times in recent years.

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