---- — The last time the Gloucester High football Fishermen took the field at Newell Stadium, fans sat in stands that were bowed and sagged at several points.
The field itself was riddled with ruts and holes. There were no permanent rest rooms, only portable toilets, for spectators, and the track that circled the field was so peeled off and full of holes that the GHS teams had not been able to host a meet on it for six years due to safety reasons.
When Gloucester High opens its high school football season Friday night against Lynn Classical, it will do so on a sparkling new playing surface that serves as the centerpiece for Gloucester’s “new” Newell Stadium — the result of a $3.5 million public private partnership that has drawn emotional and financial support from the city, the state, a number of local businesses, a prominent nonprofit foundation, and more than 300 area residents who have kicked in $1,000 or more apiece as part of a massive four-year, private, grass-roots fund-raising drive.
The 7:30 p.m. Friday game will be preceded by opening ceremonies and an official ribbon cutting starting at 6 p.m. The gates will open at 5 p.m., with a “parade of athletes” welcoming former GHS players and participants set for 5:30. All of the first-night ceremonies, including the game, are free to the public.
It was a little more than four years ago that Dick Wilson, one of the prime organizers of the nonprofit Gloucester Fisherman Athletic Association, picked up a peeled-off piece of the woebegone track and showed it to friends as a sign that the facility needed urgent attention.
“I showed it to one person, and we thought ‘what must the kids think of us, as adults, if this is what we give them?’” Wilson recalled Wednesday. “I thought, we can do better than this — we have to do better than this.”
With that, Wilson and other GFAA officials, including current School Committee Chairman Jonathan Pope, set the wheels in motion to raise money for what they called a “renewal” of Newell Stadium — a renewal that has amounted to the complete reconstruction residents and visitors can see alongside the high school off Centennial Avenue today.
And when thousands gather Friday night for the new stadium’s grand opening, they will see a new artificial turf playing field, a fully coated new track, a new main grandstand that spotlights the school’s colors, new lights, new rest rooms, and much more.
“As much as we thought about it, I guess I never envisioned anything like this,” said Wilson, who never missed a step despite also waging his own battle with lung cancer along the way. “I never envisioned how long it would take, I never envisioned how much it would cost — or how much we could raise for it — I never envisioned how much we would all have to learn about different kinds of grass, turf, you name it.
“But the satisfaction in seeing it today is unbelievable, just unbelievable,” he said. “It’s been a great four years, and it’s great to see what it has brought.”
Launched initially by the GFAA, with Wilson heading up much of the fund-raising effort and targeting major corporate donors, the project picked up steam with the backing of Mayor Carolyn Kirk and the city through a $1.5 million bond advanced for the work in early 2010.
“I’ve got to give the mayor credit,” Wilson said. “Stepped up, she didn’t blink — and with her involvement, every city door opened to us, every office.”
One of those offices included the city senior Project manager Stephen Winslow, who provided invaluable assistance with planning along the way. And the city’s steps toward the project opened other doors as well, with state Sen. Bruce Tarr also working to secure $500,000 through a state PARC (parkland acquisitions and renovations for communities) grant.
In the meantime, New Balance — the athletic footwear and gear company headed by part-time Bay View resident and Beauport Gloucester LLC hotel developer — extended $500,000, with naming rights to the field and track.
The nonprofit Dusky Foundation granted $150,000, and local businesses stepped up as well, with BankGloucester, Cape Ann Savings Bank and Gorton’s each kicking in $50,000, and others following suit with lesser amounts.
The Friday night opening football game and ceremonies, in fact, are free to the public — with free water to boot — compliments of The Building Center, which is covering all of the opening costs as the official game and ceremony sponsor.
The project itself hit full stride last year, with Heimlich Landscape and Construction Corp. of Woburn as general contractor. The work forced Gloucester High School’s outdoor athletic teams to seek other temporary “homes” last year, including the Fishermen’s football team, which hosted opponents at Manchester Essex Regional’s Hyland Field.
But the new field and stadium will not only now host football, boys’ and girls’ soccer, boys’ and girls’ track, but also lacrosse, which has been played elsewhere in the past.
Despite Friday’s formal opening program, the new Newell actually hosted its first game Wednesday night when the GHS field hockey team took on Revere. And it will serve as a civic facility for the school’s graduation, St. Peter’s Fiesta soccer and other events, and potentially outdoor concerts and other activities, Wilson noted. The track will also be open to the public for walking, with new walking lights among the renovations.
Running through a Tuesday night opening ceremony rehearsal, Wilson said he couldn’t help but marvel and feel a sense of community pride in the new surroundings. But while he conceded he never envisioned aspects of the project, he also never doubted it would become reality.
“Never — I never, ever thought it wasn’t going to happen,” he said. “I grew up here, I can tell from which direction the winds are coming from, and I could tell the winds were always at our back.
“The people of this city are great when it comes to pulling together for things like this,” he said. “I always knew they’d come through.”
Editor Ray Lamont can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3432, or at email@example.com.
The 'New' Newell's opening Schedule of events for Friday's opening ceremonies at Gloucester's "renewed" and "new" Newell Stadium. 5 p.m. -- Gates open; admission to all ceremonies and to the game is free, compliments of The Building Center, which is sponsoring the opening night. 5:30 p.m. -- Parade of Athletes, welcoming back Gloucester's past athletic performers two the new Newell Stadium. 6 p.m. -- Grand opening remarks and official ribbon cutting. 7:30 p.m. -- Opening football game: Gloucester High Fishermen vs. Lynn Classical Rams.