Surprise! Millions Appear For Bowen Makeover

Melissa Bailey PhotoHillhouse linebacker Terrell Fairweather looks forward to seeing his team play under the lights on a new turf field, after a surprise last-minute $11.6 million snuck through the state legislature to redo Bowen Field.

Terrell (pictured), a junior at James Hillhouse High, spoke as he prepared for a final scrimmage Friday for the spring football season.

Thanks to an unusual maneuver during a one-day special session at the state Capitol last week, his team can look forward to upgrades to their home field, which sits between Crescent Street and Sherman Avenue, behind the high school.

As the legislators convened for a marathon special session Tuesday, New Haven Democratic lawmakers slipped an item for the Bowen Field redo into a 468-page catch-all “implementer” bill. The bill bypassed the state school construction office and gave fast-track approval for an $11.6 million project. Of that total figure, 68.93 percent, or about $8 million, would be paid for by the state; the rest would have to come from the city.

In what Mayor John DeStefano called an unprecedented move for his $1.5 billion school construction initiative, the state approval came before approval from the city.

“They short-circuited the whole process,” said DeStefano Thursday. The state “provided funding in a large, robust amount in a surprising fashion.”

The “short-circuit” came after the Board of Aldermen butted heads with DeStefano over a prior proposal that included Bowen Field. Because the state usually pays only for improvements associated with a school construction project, DeStefano had tied in renovations to Bowen Field (as well as fields at Wilbur Cross) to a proposal to move Hyde Leadership Academy next to Hillhouse High.

The mayor included $15 million to $16 million in his proposed capital budget to redo Bowen Field as part of the $41 million Hyde project. Bowen Field currently serves as the home field to both Hyde and Hillhouse. However, he had to abandon the Hyde plan amid neighborhood outcry and rejection by the Board of Aldermen.

Aldermen dropped the Hyde construction project from next year’s city budget, sending the school district back to the drawing board on that school’s future. As the board cut the Hyde project, Beaver Hills Alderwoman Claudette Robinson-Thorpe vowed to seek state money for Bowen in another way.

After the May 30 budget vote, she and her 29 colleagues did just that. Each of them approached his or her state representative and senator to plead for money for Bowen Field, according to aldermanic President Jorge Perez. And the board signed off on a letter to New Haven’s “Two Tonis,” state Rep. Toni Walker and state Sen. Toni Harp, who co-chair the legislature’s powerful Appropriations Committee.

The strategy worked: Amid a packed day-long discussion about roll-your-own cigars and state trooper staffing, inside a 468-page budget bill, the Two Tonis quietly won approval for their hometown field.

Rep. Walker said the Board of Aldermen brought the issue to state legislators’ attention. The request for funding for Bowen Field was meant to be stand-alone all along; when the Hyde project was canceled, she said, legislators put it in the implementer bill to make sure improvements to Bowen Field weren’t delayed.

“The facilities are just dismal,” said Walker.

“What better way to utilize the dollars that are in the city than to have better facilities for family activities when we’re trying to reduce crime,” she added. She suggested the city hire Hillhouse students as maintenance workers of the park so that they take ownership of it, as well as train students in “maintenance, development and construction” in connection to the project.

Alderman Perez called the move “a creative way for the board to work together with the state delegation” to support an important project and “minimize the impact to the city budget.”

The city now needs approval from the Board of Aldermen for a roughly $4 million city contribution toward the project, DeStefano said. The Citywide School Rebuilding Committee, which he chairs, approved adding the project to its master plan at its meeting last Thursday.

DeStefano called the move unprecedented for a new school construction project. It means the city won’t have to wait another year before addressing much-needed repairs at Bowen Field, he said.

The football field and surrounding track sit inside stadium seating on a 70-acre city park.

The field house on Crescent Street was built in 1910, according to land records.

Old ticket windows face the street.

DeStefano said he recently toured the building.

“The locker rooms are just awful,” the mayor opined.

He said plans call for replacing the track ...

... tearing down one set of bleachers (pictured), adding new lights on the Crescent Street side ...

... and replacing the grass football field with turf.

The $11.6 million includes $600,000 for lighting on the field. Perez said aldermen plan to form a committee, including members of the neighborhood, to determine the scope of the project within the budget approved by the state.

Boys hanging on the fence behind their locker rooms before a scrimmage Thursday perked up when they heard about the proposed repairs.

“Night games!” exclaimed one player.

Hillhouse and Wilbur Cross are the only teams in the league that don’t have lights on their fields that allow them to play at night, according to head coach Tom Dyer (pictured). That means kids have leave school early and miss a class on Fridays to squeeze in their games before sundown, he said. (Kids make up the work in study hall.)

Hillhouse has been playing on grass while most suburban teams have artificial turf, he added. A grass field is more tender—you can’t use it for practice as well as games, Dyer explained. So the team practices on a “patch of dirt” behind the bleachers. Turf fields allow many events in one day, and they’re easier to play on in the rain, he added.

A turf field would “put us on par with surrounding towns,” he said.

Dyer agreed with the mayor’s analysis of the locker rooms: They’re “deplorable.”

He added that despite the conditions, “our kids have never complained. They’ve been thankful for what they had.” 

Freshman Wanya McElveen (at right in photo with Alton Small), who’s 16, had no complaints about the current conditions. He said it’s an honor to play on a historic field and “walk down the same steps as Floyd Little,” a Hillhouse grad who became a pro football Hall-of-Famer.

Wanya said improved facilities would be “a step towards our [championship] ring,” which he hopes to snag in the fall. He outlined high hopes for the fall season, including beating rival Xavier.

“We can work late under the lights,” he added.

Terrell Fairweather (pictured at the top of this story) said he never minded playing on grass: He can play on any surface. He said he looks forward to coming back after graduating next year to see his old teammates play under the lights.

He said he’ll be proud to return to a spiffed-up home for Cross-Hillhouse rivalry matches, a tradition every Thanksgiving Day.

Coach Dyer noted the field will benefit more than the football players. In the summer, he said, the field is “a lifeline for the community,” busy with youth leagues and local runners.

The park buzzed with activity Friday afternoon.

Emmanuel Beauduy, who’s 32, lugged a gallon jug of Pure Mountain water to the track for a workout. He jogged around the track, sprinted on the field and ran up the cement bleachers—all in preparation for a physical test in the hops of becoming a corrections officer.

Beauduy said he’s been visiting Bowen Field since he was a high school track runner at Cross. “Nothing much has changed” since those days, he said.

“It’s due for a renovation.”

Beverly E. Felder (at right in photo with Glendora Rochelle McMillan), who grew up on Newhallville’s Ivy Street, returned to the track in recent years on a quest to defeat diabetes. She said she started coming back a doctor told her she was “borderline diabetic.” For the past two years, she has walked two-and-a-half miles every day, she said. Now when doctors check her for diabetes, “they don’t see it.”

Felder, who’s 44, said while she lives in West Haven, she exercises at Bowen because of the good company. Regulars include a group of older ladies who walk the track at 5 a.m. Police recruits jog there before classes at the nearby training academy, too.

Will Clark, chief operating officer of the school district, said it’s too early to predict when the city could break ground, but the renovation will probably take about a year. Clark said the district considers the project “a priority” and had already begun planning for it in prior years.

“With the state action we will now proceed with all deliberate speed to move the project along,” Clark said in an email.

He said the district would work with community members, the city, and local and state legislators as the project moves forward. He said formal requests would be issued “in a matter of weeks” to the Board of Aldermen, school board, and Citywide School Rebuilding Committee, all of which would need to approve the project.

“Bowen Field is in need of repair and we look forward to returning it to its prior glory,” Clark said, “and making it this community and school athletic asset what it should be once more.”

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posted by: Intel on June 18, 2012  9:17am

Sent: Jun 18, 2012 8:50 am
“after a surprise last-minute $11.6 million snuck through the state legislature to redo Bowen Field”.
Actually, the plural form of sneak is “sneaked” not “snuck”. I don’t mean to be so fastidious, its just that I tend to be a stickler when it comes to proper English especially when the subject involves our young people.

posted by: anonymous on June 18, 2012  9:26am

Borrowing $4 million to rebuild this field is much more reasonable than borrowing $15 million.

That said, given the lack of jobs (especially for our youth, disabled, and long term unemployed residents) and the fact that transportation is by far the largest barrier to jobs access, it is disappointing that the Mayor and Perez considered borrowing $15,000,000 but wouldn’t push harder to borrow $30,000 to study an improved bus and transit system in our city a few months ago.  The latter would have made a huge difference to New Haven’s economy, plus would have been matched by state and federal funds likely leading to between 500 and 1,500 permanent union jobs. 

It seems that our policymakers keep focusing on feel-good projects and grandstanding about wages and job pipelines, rather than on the long term structural changes that are absolutely needed if we want to connect the people who live here to real jobs.

posted by: streever on June 18, 2012  9:50am

A school can be built for 41 million and an athletic field costs 15 million—almost 40% the cost of the entire school.

Doesn’t that seem out of whack?
Have I misread this story?

posted by: DavidK on June 18, 2012  10:49am

Why couldn’t Hillhouse use Jess Dow field, less than a mile away, and save the taxpayers some money?

posted by: Seth Poole on June 18, 2012  10:58am

We should commend our Alders and State Representatives for securing the funding for the rebuilding of a storied New Haven landmark.  This is way overdue and well worth the wait.  I would have to agree with streever on the pricing, but hopefully all of the small details included in state-of-the-art athletic facilities have been addressed.

posted by: SaveOurCity on June 18, 2012  11:03am


Whether it is a full school or only athletic fields, all projects need a couple million of excess that Johnny D can funnel to his election supporters.  Votes are not as cheap as they used to be.

posted by: Webblog1 on June 18, 2012  11:26am

On May 17, 2012 the Mayor submitted his amendment to the original 12/13 budget.
In it, he preempted Justin Elickler’s proposed amendment to reduce the bond funding by eliminating three schools, Hyde, NHA, and Helen Grant totaling 42.3M city and 81.7M state shares.

According to Alder Robinson-Thrope, within the Hyde proposal of 17M there was about 1M to preform a study of the redo of Bowen Field.

The Mayor proposed and the BOA voted 25-0 to accept the reduction of the Hyde proposal in it’s entirety. The taxpayers brought into this act.

What was a defeated 1M study of Bowen field turns out to be a new Destefano request for 3.8M in city bonds for a complete overhaul of Bowen field, an increase of 2.8M in bonds that taxpayers thought was reduced.

Apparently the two tony’s, the same two who could not decide what side of the city’s proposal of tax fairness for East Rock they were on…raided the states bond fund for a new 16.8M attachment to the state budget.. which is in serious balancing straits as we speak.

We should note here that the new proposal to spend does not include a study to first determine what should be done about the serious problem existing in and to the left of Bowen Field which harbours a large contingent of parked cars 24-7, who’s occupants carry out liquor drinking, dope selling, smoking, illicit selling of other contraband, littering, prostitution and a whole host of other illicit activities within 1500 feet of a school and immediately next to a little league baseball field, unabated by the Mayor , the BOA , the BOE and the two Tony’s.

Perez and the finance committee has to get it together and eliminate this ill-behavior before they consider where the city share of 3.8M will be taken from in the already passed budget.In addition to the request to the state for 2.8M for the state armory redo for a youth center.

posted by: Noteworthy on June 18, 2012  11:42am

A couple of notes:
1. “Sneaking” higher state debt and expenditures through the Legislature is hardly worth celebrating, nor does it showcase integrity. What’s worse is that the “two Tonis” who have not balanced the current budget nor next year’s budget, still signed up for more state spending with money the state doesn’t have.  That’s responsible leadership particularly when approval intentionally bypasses the rules and departments designed to keep this kind of expenditure from happening?

2. Spending $15 million on a play area when the parents of those playing, indeed half those Hillhouse kids who go to school there will not graduate, is a sin, and ought to be a crime.

3. The $4 million in new city debt tied to this field is not budgeted. No should it be.

4. The field and related facilities are in the shape they are because the school and the BOE have not properly maintained them. There is absolutely ZERO excuse for tolerating the graffiti, having ivy and weeds growing on your stands and the the track to be in such bad shape not to mention the general upkeep. I would use even stronger language except the NHI won’t allow it. The place is only a dump because those in charge have not allocated a nickle to making it something other than a dump. Through their collective benign neglect, they have allowed a perfectly fine facility to rot before our eyes.

posted by: anonymous on June 18, 2012  1:06pm

Noteworthy is right - We probably need this money to keep our existing (huge) state investments from crumbling, given the sad state of our maintenance budgets.

General rule for all infrastructure: Before building new you always need to repair what you have, otherwise your long-term costs are many times higher. For example, it is hundreds of times cheaper to fill a pothole each year than it is to repair a roadbed.

posted by: robn on June 18, 2012  4:13pm

So there was no time before the end of the last session to address the grossly asymmetric property tax problem in New Haven, but there was time for a special session to put taxpayers on the hook for another $3.6M? Pathetic.

posted by: ElmJackCity on June 18, 2012  7:47pm

I have an idea.  Spend 11.6 million on books, teachers, and supplies!  I was an athlete.  What New Haven kids need is a better education.

posted by: new havener on June 18, 2012  9:45pm

well…just a few comments…

if playing under the lights IS that important, playing at SCSU should have been an option, or a mandate, long ago—-it is a State-owned facility, and would have saved us taxpayers a tidy sum

i played baseball at Bowen in the ‘70’s…at some point in the ‘80’s or ‘90’s, perhaps when the Hillhouse Athletic center was built and Munson St was redone, Bowen Field was partially rebuilt and the baseball field was turned 90 degrees to the right…I wonder if funding for the football field was available at the time but spent on other things?

I’m glad to see so many locals using the field for exercise…when redone, will it still be open to the public?

Whomever asked about maintenance at the current field should broaden that question to include all Board of Education facilities. New Haven is rebuilding everything, mostly for lack of maintenance, and partly due to poor designs. Money for new schools does not deliver good results, dedication does. And you can’t buy dedication either. Sorry teachers, just an opinion.

posted by: jdossgollin on June 19, 2012  9:53am

I’m happy for Hillhouse and I think that in a perfect world, this is a good project. I’m also very glad that the state is prioritizing youth and high school sports, which from experience I would argue are one of the best ways to help young men and women mature and learn to use their time positively. However, I have to wonder if this is the best use of funds. Wilbur Cross, where I recently graduated, has a soccer field that is consistently rated the worst in the state. What about putting in a turf field there (1 million rather than 11 million dollars)? Having been to Bowen field two of the past three years for the Thanksgiving football game, I can’t see what is so desperately in need of renovation. If the state is serious about helping boys and girls grow into mature men and women through sports, which I absolutely support, then it should find a better use of those $11 million.

posted by: anonymous on June 19, 2012  10:36pm

Agree w/ the above. A “fix it first” policy for all state-funded infrastructure, including schools, might help ensure the efficient use of public dollars.

Saving money by doing that would theoretically “free up” a lot of money that could be used to build schools or new fields, or to invest in jobs access to help the 50%+ of young men in the neighborhood who are not employed and aren’t going to see any benefit from this project.