Norwich youth football field to get improvements, much-needed rest

Norwich — Norwich youth football teams have gone to their Super Bowls for the past three years and one team was undefeated last year, but while the teams can brag about their achievements, their home field resembled more of a “dustbowl” than a championship field.

The City Council on Monday night sought to rectify that by voting unanimously to take $45,000 from what started as a proposed $500,000 demolition fund in the 2019-20 capital improvements budget to install an irrigation system and make sprinkler system improvements at the Hamilton Avenue youth field, where about 260 youths play football and youth cheerleading on the field.

The improvements will require all teams to stay off the field for about a year, city officials said, to allow the field to be seeded and recover from years of overuse by so many teams. Norwich Human Services Director Lee Ann Gomes, who also oversees the city Recreation Department, told the council that Norwich Technical High School will allow games on its field, and Norwich Free Academy will allow the youth teams to use its artificial turf field on Sundays.

Gomes said she spoke to Recreation Director Cheryl Hancin-Preston and was ensured the youth teams would have places to play, and if the city needed to open or light other fields, that could be done for one year.

“I think this is a great investment for the city,” Gomes said to the council. “That field is a dustbowl down there, and we really need to do something to improve conditions if we’re going to have football in our city.”

Gomes said everyone agrees that it will only take one year to rest the field and bring it to playing condition.

Rick DiGiacomo, president of Norwich Youth Football, thanked the council for reconsidering the field irrigation system, two weeks after the council voted 4-3 to reject the irrigation system, with the council’s four Republicans voting against the improvements.

“It’s very important to have a safe place to play,” DiGiacomo said. “By improving the field, it reduces injuries. We’d like to see this program continue to thrive. We’ve made super bowls over the past three years. We had an undefeated season last year for one of our teams, and we’d like to have a place they can be proud of to call home.”

Republican Alderman William Nash, a former youth football coach, voted against funding the irrigation improvements on May 6, arguing that unless the field had time to “rest,” the improvements would be for naught. On Monday night he said he had done research and talked to Gomes and others and was assured that the teams would have alternative places to play.

Nash said he also was concerned that the field could take longer than a year to recover, and the youth league would lose more than a year of concessions revenue, an important fundraising source.

“This is a program Norwich itself should be proud of,” Nash said.

In making budget changes over the past two meetings, aldermen have tapped into City Manager John Salomone’s proposed $500,000 demolition fund four times. On May 6, the council removed $50,078 to purchase equipment for the Norwich Golf Course and $120,000 as the city’s matching share for a potential Connecticut Port Authority grant for improvements to the city docks at the Howard T. Brown Memorial Park.

On Monday, in addition to the $45,000 for the Hamilton Avenue field, the council voted 5-2 to reduce the demolition fund by another $100,000 to pay for improvements to the Yantic volunteer fire station.

The reductions leave $184,922 in the demolition account, plus another $60,000 remaining in a previous bond package approved for demolition of blighted properties in the city.

c.bessette@theday.com

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