Hillhouse 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.”