By Bethany Bray
---- — SALEM — A project to renovate the track and install synthetic turf at Bertram Field cleared its last municipal hurdle last night and can now go out to bid.
The School Committee voted 4-3 last night to reaffirm the property’s designation as city park land. The city purchased Bertram Field, Salem High School’s main football field, for the purposes of a public park in 1906.
The city was awarded a $400,000 state grant for the renovation project this winter through the Parkland Acquisitions and Renovations for Communities, or PARC, program. To utilize the grant funds — an estimated one-third of the project’s costs — Bertram Field needs to be under city control.
City councilors also voted to designate Bertram Field as park land at the board’s last meeting.
The council and school board’s votes allow the city to begin accepting bids toward the project. Ultimately, City Council approval will be needed to fund the project before construction can begin.
The project is estimated to cost more than $1 million, $400,000 of which would be covered by the PARC grant.
Charlie O’Donnell was one of several residents who urged the School Committee to vote in the affirmative last night, saying the renovation project is sorely needed.
“I hate to see us miss the opportunity to take advantage of doing it, and doing it right,” O’Donnell said.
Proposed designs would install a 82,000 square foot synthetic turf field, resurface the track and create a new area for high jump, long and triple jump, shot put and discus throwing.
Last night, School Committee members Janet Crane, James Fleming and Brendan Walsh voted against reaffirming the property as park land. The trio said they were supportive of the renovations, but against ceding control of the property.
“We’re taking an irreversible action,” Crane said. “I want to see the facilities improved ... (but) I do not believe this is the way to do it.”
A 1957 act passed by the state Legislature allowed Bertram Field to be used for school, athletic and public events, and put the property in the care and control of the school department.
Fleming said he felt the 1957 act ceded Bertram Field to the school department. Mayor Kim Driscoll, who chairs the School Committee, argued the 1957 act granted the “care, control and custody” — but not ownership — of the property to the schools.
The parcel was purchased as park land in 1906 and has remained so, Driscoll said.
Last night’s vote does not take the care and control of Bertram Field away from the schools, she argued.
“I expect that will remain the same, going forward,” Driscoll said.
“This vote would forbid the schools to use the land for another purpose,” Fleming said. “... If future generations need to build a school, we could not use this site.”
“... I feel the cost of giving away that land forever is too high,” he said.
Walsh agreed, saying he was concerned it might be a “short sighted decision” that would “come back to haunt the School Committee” in the future.
Driscoll and School Committee member Debbie Amaral both described the track at Bertram Field as “deplorable” and in much need of improvement. It is shorter than the regulation length of 400 meters.
School Committee member Nate Bryant called the project “a win-win” that would allow the facilities to be used more by both school students and the city at large.
It could even be rented out as a source of revenue, he said.
“We have a wonderful opportunity here to build a showpiece to bring the community together,” said School Committee member Lisa Lavoie.
Bertram Field, located behind Collins Middle School, is used by SHS athletics as well as youth sports programs.
Bethany Bray can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @SalemNewsBB.