By Ray Lamont
---- — The first thing you may notice might be the bright, new red-toned track, ready to safely host Gloucester High School’s track athletes for the first time in seven years.
Then again, it might be the slick, well-defined playing surface, with artificial turf that looks quite different from the rutted, gutted surface many fans and players alike would see in the past.
It might be the new grandstand, with full accessiblity to all, and proudly displaying the school’s colors. Or it might be the new restroom building at the corner of the stands, newly installed just last month and finally providing game fans the modest comfort they had not had in recent years.
But all of those elements will greet residents and visitors alike at the new Newell Stadium, which hosts its formal opening ceremony and its first football game Friday night when the 2013 GHS Fishermen face Lynn Classical at 5 p.m.
“We’re all ready to go,” said Dick Wilson, a leader of the Gloucester Fisherman Athletic Association and the primary organizer of the fundraising drive that has made this project a reality. In fact, GFAA, school and city officials carried out a dress rehearsal of Friday night’s opening ceremonies on the field.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many diverse people — young, old, supporters, cynics — all coming together and all agreeing on one thing,” Wilson added. “When you just step into the place, I can’t help but think that it’s nicer than any field that I’ve ever been to, in any community — and believe me, as a committee, we’ve been to a lot of them over the last four years. This field and stadium could be plunked down in the middle of Harvard, and it would fit right in.”
Friday’s grand opening and game — which will be free and open to the public, compliments of the opening-night sponsor, The Building Center — caps a four-year project that has been carried out in stages, starting with the fundraising.
While the “Newell Renewal” effort began with the nonprofit GFAA, an organization, that in its beginnings and still today, primarily focuses on providing aid and coordinating work programs for Gloucester student-athletes who have difficulty in meeting the demands of the school’s athletic user fees, it also picked up steam with bond funding through the city and with corporate donors like New Balance, which contributed $500,000 for field naming rights.
Yet the new stadium’s reconstruction is rooted in a grass-roots GFAA effort that set out to raise close to $1 million by getting up to 1,000 residents to contribute $1,000 each — with gifts of $200 a year over a five-year period.
It has been that grass-roots effort, backers believe, that has helped generate the support that the project has enjoyed ever since its groundbreaking stages – and continues to do so today.
“We’ve gotten about $12,000 (in smaller increments) just in the last few weeks from people who said they knew about (the drive), but said they didn’t think it would ever really happen,” Wilson said. “But here we are.”
The “1,000-by-1,000” grass-roots drive never did draw in 1,000 donors, but topped more than 300, Wilson said, hauling in well over $300,000 during a time when Gloucester – like so many other communities across the state and the nation – continues to grapple with difficult financial times. And the project has not been scaled back since its inception.
Wilson also noted that the donors have included some 30 to 40 Rockport residents, some of whom are GHS graduates or former athletes, others of whom hope to use the track for exercise walking, Wilson said.
“I expect this to get 10 times the use it has in the past,” Wilson said. “And I think a lot of people realize this is not only an asset for Gloucester, but for all of Cape Ann.”
The general contractor has been Heimlich Landscape and Construction of Woburn, a company that’s drawn extensive praise from Wilson as the project nears completion.
“They have been aces — absolute aces — all the way through,” Wilson said Wednesday. “We couldn’t be happier with the way this has turned out — and I hope the community feels that way, too.”
“We did it,” he said. “Gloucester did it — all of Gloucester did it.”
Times Editor Ray Lamont can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3432, or at email@example.com.