2016-12-08 / Around Town

Officials Pitch New Playing Field

By Olga Enger

Although Monday, Dec. 5, was the first Middletown Town Council meeting since Election Day, councilors kept their eyes on the ball regarding a promised focus on playing fields.

Council approved the initial excavation for a new general-purpose playing field at the former Starlight Drive-in on Aquidneck Avenue. The 10-acre site, which was purchased by the town in 1998, is made up of two acres of wetlands. Upgrades at existing Little League fields also got a green light.

“Let’s keep it pretty simple in terms of costs, but let’s get these folks some playing fields,” said Council Vice President Paul Rodrigues, who has chaired the athletic field subcommittee since it was formed in March 2015.

Playing fields have been a priority after council rejected a proposed $11 million plan to build a 60-acre sports complex around the Boulevard Nurseries property on East Main Road, amid concerns about traffic and pollution.

“Two years ago when we looked at the fields, we knew we had issues. We tried to do a complex; it didn’t work,” said Tom Nasser, president of Middletown Little League. He added that upgrades to the town fields are a cost-effective alternative that goes a long way with players and coaches.

After councilors voted down the sports complex, they pledged to fix the existing fields and formed a subcommittee to recommend the best path forward.

“When we give our word, the only thing we have at the end of the day is our word,” said Rodrigues.

To collect data, the town sent out surveys to the baseball and lacrosse leagues. The committee reviewed game times, seasons, numbers of players, and existing field conditions. They determined that in addition to field upgrades, the baseball and lacrosse leagues needed more fields since their seasons and games overlap.

Last winter, council reviewed a $705,000 plan for the site, which included two new fields, a 60-car parking lot, and a stormwater management system to handle rainwater runoff. In hopes the town would be awarded a grant from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (RIDEM) to offset the cost of construction of the playing field at the drive-in property, the town set aside $300,000 from the capital program to complete the project.

Although the town was not awarded the grant, Town Administrator Shawn Brown proposed that the process move along. He recommended engaging the town’s biologist to reflag the wetlands and solicit bids to remove the concrete and asphalt that remains on the property.

“I believe the town would receive favorable bids for the work, given the type of work required and the time of year. The equipment and employees that typically perform this work are more available due to the winter shutdown,” wrote Brown in a memo to council.

Councilor Dennis Turano asked if the area would be safe for children.

“It will not be childproof,” Brown responded. “This is rough site work.” He added the council was only approving the initial phase of creating the field, which is limited to removing the concrete and leveling off some of the terrain. Topsoil and seeding would be completed during a future phase.

Also at the meeting, councilors approved repairs to the town’s Little League and softball fields, including upgrades to the concession stand, electrical, fences, scoreboards, irrigation systems, dugouts and batting cages.

“We could really have a first-class facility,” said Rodrigues.

Recognizing safety concerns as an immediate need, last year council approved spending $150,000 to make improvements to existing fields. Coaches and players said the overdue upgrades were the reason they won district championships.

The improvements also have financial payoffs for the leagues.

“Two years ago they made $700 roughly on the concession stand, and last year they made just shy of $4,000,” said Rodrigues.

Before the work, the leagues and volunteers were responsible for the field upkeep.

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