Parks manager James McGrath discusses some of the issues at the park.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The members of the Wahconah Park Restoration Committee had their meeting on site to see the extent of the work ahead of them.
"The purpose of tonight's meeting is simply to orient the committee to Wahconah Park," Parks, Open Space, and Natural Resource Program Manager James McGrath said on Thursday.
"To the grandstand and to areas approximate of the grandstand."
Members got an inside look at the grandstand, locker and bathroom facilities, and concession areas. Aside from the grandstand's structural compromises, representatives from the Pittsfield Suns also spoke of struggles such as unattractive locker facilities, insufficient storage, and an intimidating press box.
Last month, the committee met for the first time and reviewed a structural study for repairs that put an approximately $9.3 million price tag on just the building's renovation. This would restore it to a safe condition and bring it up to code.
Major issues with the more than 70-year-old grandstand include deteriorating support beams, missing bolts, and asbestos materials in the siding and roof.
A new water and sewer line was also recommended.
Next month, the committee will review of request for proposals for the consideration of hiring a sports facility consultant. McGrath said this is something that will be put out to bid to attract a person that can help the city imagine the future for Wahconah Park, whether it is renovating or rebuilding the structure.
It will also evaluate options for public engagement, which is welcome to make a park the place that everyone is proud of.
After a structural evaluation in late 2021 revealed concerns, the city hired a structural engineer and architect to look at it more comprehensively. Their recommendation was for the grandstand to be closed for the 2022 season and four bleachers were brought in to supplement the seating.
"These are the bleacher sets that the city installed just prior to the Suns' opening day in an attempt to provide fan seating because of the closure of the grandstands," McGrath explained from the field.
"I think originally we hadn't imagined that these would be sited right on the field but I think that this worked out fairly well for the Suns and for the fan experience. It was a temporary thing, but it seems to be kind of an exciting new addition to the fan experience here at Wahconah Park."
Suns President and general manager Sander Stotland said the aged condition of the locker rooms is the "number one complaint" that is received from players.
"As far as functionality we get the job done here," he said. "I really would like to see a little bit more for our players to entice them to come here."
Stotland later added that cosmetic improvements such as paint, better lighting, and new flooring would go a long way, as the players think the actual lockers are fascinating because they are "from the beginning of time." Though he said the unpleasant smell in that area needs to be addressed.
In the rear of the locker rooms is a room full of chest freezers that the president explained is used to house the concessions because there is no freezer space for concessions in the designated area.
Billy Madewell, director of media relations, described the press box that is located on top of the grandstand as scary to get to.
"If you're afraid of heights, I like to call it shaky leg syndrome, you're going to be going up there and you're going to have the heebie-jeebies just climbing up each way because you're looking at what a 20, 25-foot drop something like that," he said.
"That's what you're overlooking, and there's a rail and with an older ballpark like this, it's not going to feel safe, even though for the past 10, 11 years, it's been safe for me. I'm terrified of heights. I can run up and down that ladder, no problem. The same cannot be said for everyone and I totally understand."
McGrath said broadcasting is a critical part of what happens at the games and the committee should think about a safe access point for it.
The conversation also veered towards handicap accessibility and the park's historic designation.
"Not only did (the structural study) note the deficiencies with the structure, but it also made note of those building code improvements which would be required if we cross a certain threshold of investment in a project here, which in Massachusetts is 33 percent or more of the assessed value of this grandstand," McGrath disclosed.
"So, very quickly, with any improvement projects here, it would trigger it so we've talked about an architect we've talked about yeah, we can take this facility and following his recommendations, repair the steel, repair the decking, make it safe, but there's also those other improvements for life safety, fire code, handicap accessibility, that all needs to be factored in."
Currently, there is one small area of the grandstand seating that is designated as handicap accessible. Councilor at Large Earl Persip III even questioned if that area was accessible, citing a close turnaround ratio.
In the early 2000s, it was proposed that the Parks Commission nominate the park for the National Register of Historic Places.
It was used in 2007 to receive a state grant for a host of improvements valued at around $900,000.
McGrath said the designation has helped attract grand funding but also puts up some guardrails for changes.
The city has attempted to get in touch with the Massachusetts Historic Commission to involve it in the conversation, which is as an important part of the process. The committee would also like for a member to attend one of its meetings.
"I think that the designation would afford us a leg up if we are seeking competitive funds, whether they're federal or state funds," McGrath said.
"I can tell you assuredly, that [U.S.] Rep. Richie Neal, who is working with the city to attract a $3 million earmark for Wahconah Park, I don't think that that would have been pursued by the representative if we had not been on the National Register."
The restoration committee was created by the City Council in June. It is expected to issue a preliminary report to Mayor Linda Tyer within 180 days of its appointment and a final report within 270 days.
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