LEWISTON — New buildings, improved structures, scenic walkways and new athletic facilities have arisen at every corner of Bates College in the new century.
Stuck in somewhat of a time warp, even as it rests in one of the most visible locations on campus, Garcelon Field finally is in line for its own facelift.
The Lewiston Planning Board voted unanimously Monday night to approve what is assuredly a multi-million dollar renovation project at Bates’ football complex.
Improvements would include a synthetic turf field, lighting, new bleachers and press box, storage space and walkways. In addition to football and lacrosse games and practices, the new-look Garcelon likely would host club and intramural sports, as well.
“It would be great for us and great for the school in general,” said Bates football coach Mark Harriman.
Harriman and other school officials have remained mostly mum about the project, as private fundraising is ongoing. Calls Monday to the office of athletic director Kevin McHugh were not returned.
While the price tag has not been made public, similar recent upgrades at rival Colby College in Waterville invite comparison.
Colby’s Harold Alfond Stadium complex — named after the late benefactor whose bequest helped foot the bill — was refurbished in 2008 at a cost of $6 million.
That included new track and field facilities. Those won’t be necessary at Garcelon, thanks to Bates’ relatively new outdoor track facility on Russell Street.
High schools, club teams and intramural teams share the field with football, soccer and track and field at Colby, according to football coach Ed Mestieri.
“The artificial turf surface certainly is a benefit in northern New England,” Mestieri said. “But I think the real benefit to us, where our field is situated in the middle of the campus, is that it makes a favorable impression on everyone who visits our campus. It’s something everyone sees and something everyone can use.”
Colby is one of four other schools in the New England Small College Athletic Conference to embellish its football complex with FieldTurf. Middlebury (Vt.), Trinity of East Hartford, Conn., and Hamilton (N.Y.) are the others.
While many Bates athletic programs have excelled at the NCAA Division III level, football has struggled mightily, longer than any current players have been alive.
The program celebrated its last winning season in 1981. Only two other seasons in the last 30 years have concluded with a .500 record, most recently in 1999.
David Hild, a 1984 Bates graduate and now a high school football coach in Connecticut, made reference to the disparity between the Bobcats’ facility and those of their conference rivals in a recent fund-raising letter to alumni.
In the letter dated April 18, Hild noted that the school had approval and funds for the new field surface but not the other infrastructure.
“Though it is essential that the field be turfed, a new playing surface is really only a job half done,” Hild wrote. “A field without lights, updated bleachers, a press box and proper landscaping is just a place where uniforms never get dirty. It’s not a home field or an adequate college facility.”
Gale Associates, an engineering firm with offices in Boston and Hartford, has been contracted to oversee the renovations.
Project manager Nathan Collins told the Planning Board that the current bleachers and press box overlooking Garcelon are “not very safe.”
They would be torn down and rebuilt, he said, with the area underneath enclosed for storage space.
Four Musco light poles, each 80 feet high, would provide the artificial lighting.
Collins proclaimed Monday’s discussion “the easiest public hearing” in which he’d participated. Lighting is a frequent concern, he said.
With no homes on that immediate stretch of Central Avenue, however, there was no public objection to the plan.
The lights would have different settings for practices and games, Collins said. He added that neither setting would brighten the adjacent community more than the existing street lights.
Bates lacrosse teams now play on a lighted turf field next to Campus Avenue.
Collins compared that surface to the AstroTurf carpet that became ubiquitous at professional fields in the 1970s. The Garcelon layout would mirror the modern technology that is used at Fitzpatrick Stadium in Portland and the football complexes at Hampden Academy and the University of Maine.
The new turf would be warrantied for eight years, with an expected life span of 12 to 15.
In an economy that sees many schools reluctant to allocate new money to athletic programs, even cutting them, Bates alumni, trustees and coaches say the investment is part of a holistic education.
Hild’s email to alumni was accompanied by a link to a seven-minute viral video selling those points. It was interspersed with photos documenting Bates’ lengthy football tradition.
Garcelon Field is 110 years old. At one end is a rock monument celebrating the first interscholastic football game in Maine, one that took place on the same Bates grounds in 1875.
“It’s very modest in terms of capital campaigns on a college campus,” Steve Brown, a 1969 graduate, former football player and current trustee, said in the video. “It’s probably the least expensive thing you can do, and conversely, it will have the highest impact of anything you can do.”
Like Colby’s Seaverns Field, Garcelon sits at what Bates alumni consider the “crossroads” of campus.
With new dining and residence facilities casting their shadows over the gridiron on a sunny, fall afternoon, devotees of the football program see the dated layout as a relative eyesore.
“(Hamilton and Colby) now have beautiful places to practice and play,” Hild wrote. “In this race, we’re lagging far behind.”
There is no immediate timetable for a groundbreaking. If fundraising continues to go well, Harriman anticipated that the school may make a public announcement by the end of the month.