2016-02-04 / Around Town

Open Space Committee Goes to Bat for Sports Fields

By Olga Enger

An open space advocate is urging the Middletown Town Council to construct two multipurpose sports fields on the former Starlight Drive-In property on Aquidneck Avenue.

The council recently reviewed a plan for the site, which included two new fields, a 60-car parking lot, and a stormwater management system to handle rainwater runoff, all at an estimated cost of $705,000.

“It is our single biggest property that is underutilized,” said Mason Hawes, chair of the Open Space and Fields Committee at the Feb. 1 council meeting. “I believe there is public support out there. I want to be on record saying that the voters of Middletown have been totally supportive of open space.”

The 10-acre site, which was purchased by the town in 1998, is made up of two acres of wetlands. In addition to the sports field, the town has an opportunity to partner with the state and federal government to develop an innovative and educational watershed, added Hawes.

“Voters have been asked twice to build a school on it, and twice it has been voted down,” explained Town Administrator Shawn Brown about the former drive-in location.

“It has sat there doing nothing,” said Hawes.

After a proposed $11 million plan to build a 60-acre sports complex around the Boulevard Nurseries property on East Main Road was unanimously rejected by the council last March, three councilors formed a group to explore options for the town’s playing fields.

“At that time, we gave our word we would fix the fields,” said Councilor Paul Rodrigues, who sat on the committee along with Councilors Rick Lombardi and Antone Viveiros.

The town sent out surveys to the baseball and lacrosse leagues to collect data. The committee reviewed game times, seasons, number of players, and existing field conditions. They determined that in addition to safety upgrades to existing fields, multi-use fields were also needed due to overlaps in sports seasons and games.

The committee determined two new lacrosse fields were required, one for practice and the other for games. They recommended a new field be installed at Linden Park and a practice field be added at the high school. In December, council reviewed a plan for Linden Park estimated to cost $285,000, in addition to the alternative location at the former drive-in.

Recognizing safety concerns as an immediate need, last fall council approved taking $150,000 out of the general fund to make improvements to Middletown’s existing fields before baseball season begins this spring.

“That project repairs the existing fields, but we still need multi-use fields,” said Rodrigues. The multiuse would be available to sports such as lacrosse, football and soccer.

“The site is contiguous to the active recreational area of the Joseph H. Gaudet Middle School and Learning Academy as well as a wetlands project that serves as an outdoor classroom for Science, Engineering, Technology and Math (STEM) classes and an environmental club at the school,” Hawes wrote in a short Jan. 22 memorandum addressed to the council.

“Currently, I’m not opposed to the idea,” said Rodrigues. “It would be one big complex. That’s what you want, you want it all together.”

Viveiros was the only councilor who spoke up against the proposal.

“I’m not going to spend the money, put this town further into debt,” said Viveiros. “I just don’t believe we ought to. We can take a look at it, but it’s upwards of $700,000 for a field. We recommended Linden.”

Brown said while he provided the estimates to council in December, the final price tag may be considerably lower than the $705,000 estimate.

“Those are figures that are just floating around, coming out of conversations,” Brown said.

“We still have two open space bonds which the voters approved at 70 percent,” Hawes added. Middletown voters approved two separate $2 million open space bonds in the 2006 and 2008 elections.

“In the future, I hope the council can approve a budget line item to provide a maintenance budget for the fields,” said Rodrigues in an October interview with Newport This Week. Currently, the leagues and volunteers do most of the upkeep.

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