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As Wahconah Park Restoration Committee re-imagines the historic ballpark’s future, Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer outlines goals

A Wahconah Park sign advertises the May 27th home opener in a field in front of the park itself
Josh Landes
/
WAMC

Pittsfield, Massachusetts’ Wahconah Park was built in 1919. It’s been the site of concerts by American legends like Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson and seen generations of up-and-coming minor leaguers take to the field for affiliates of the New York Mets and the Chicago Cubs. Today, the historic ballpark is the home of Futures Collegiate Baseball League team the Pittsfield Suns. This spring, the city announced that its grandstands would not be open for the summer due to concerns about their structural integrity.

Last week, the new Wahconah Park Restoration Committee, formed by Mayor Linda Tyer, began work on imagining what could come next for Wahconah. WAMC with Tyer about the committee’s goals and criticism about the body’s makeup from some city councilors.

TYER: They had their first meeting on Thursday evening. I was there to welcome them to thank them for their willingness to serve, and to sort of give them my thoughts on how I hoped the committee would really cast a wide lens on the potential for Wahconah Park to become a landmark destination for people who live in our community, who enjoy that baseball experience, but also, beyond baseball, what are the other types of community events that can be held in a facility, you know, a newly renovated facility? I certainly want them to be thoughtful about how do we provide an excellent fan experience, how do we support not only the Pittsfield Suns and the teams that that enjoy Wahconah Park, play at Wahconah Park in the summer months, but how do we support student athletes? What are the other opportunities for community events? Mindful of the historic restrictions, making sure that people with disabilities have a comfortable experience when they're at the park, thinking about the wetlands issues that might be a challenge in any kind of new construction of a grandstand. There was, you know- I really want them to have- I didn't want to put too many guardrails on their work, because I feel like this is, in my mind, we have an opportunity to create an anchor destination at the north end of our city. So, similar to what the Colonial represents at the southern entrance to our city, what Barrington Stage feels like in the heart of our city, and now with a newly renovated historic Wahconah Park, we'll have a destination at the north end, really anchoring the corridor of our downtown. I am very excited about the possibilities for the future of Wahconah Park, and I think this group is going to be creative and willing to think big about how we can really take this opportunity to preserve this historic landmark.

WAMC: The appointees you selected for the body have been criticized by some members of the city council, who argued they lacked the qualifications necessary for this kind of work. Any response to those criticisms?

I have no criticisms, and I was obviously surprised and somewhat disappointed to hear elected officials criticize people from our community who want to participate in the future, designing the future of Wahconah Park. These are community members. You know, many of our boards and commissions are made up of community members who don't have specific expertise. But also, what they bring to the table is community sentiment, community values, a community belief system. When it comes to the expertise around architects, engineers, designers, there will certainly be professionals brought on board to provide guidance to the Wahconah Park Restoration Committee, just like, for example, when the School Building Needs Commission constructs a new school. It's primarily made up of community members and parents and caregivers of our students who care about our schools. And the expertise comes from those professionals in their field. And so I imagine that's exactly how this will play out for Wahconah Park.

This opens the door to all kinds of ideas about, maybe, a very familiar part of the Pittsfield landscape changing in ways that might upset or disturb people who are very attached to Wahconah. Can you speak a little bit to that? What are the odds that we see a pretty aggressive suggestion about the future of the property moving forward?

Well, I think that the committee will probably look at the, okay, what are the basic repairs that we need to make in order to just continue on as we are with the existing footprint in the existing grandstand? And then on the other end, what would it look like if we did a complete renovation, new construction? And what are those elements in-between that we really want to incorporate? And I understand that people have sentimental feelings about that field and about their childhood memories or their own student athlete memories, or- You know, we were looking at a photograph that the Berkshire Athenaeum had found from 1949, the last time that the grandstand was constructed. So we've got a lot of history there, and I understand people are sentimental. I think we can honor that history. One thing I did ask the committee to think about is, how do we create a space somewhere in the grandstand that would allow us to honor Pittsfield baseball history with a collection or some small exhibit space? We have many people in our community who have collected over the years memorabilia from baseball history in Pittsfield. Let's see if we can create a space to exhibit all that memorabilia. So I think there's lots of opportunities to honor people's sentimental feelings, but also think about the future.

Do you anticipate there being a community input session to accompany this process?

Absolutely. I think that at various points throughout the process, there will be opportunities for community participation, for the community to weigh in. And so we clearly identified that in the order that we sent to the city council that there would be opportunities for community engagement throughout this process.

And looking at a timeline- You know, we're getting towards the end of the baseball season this summer, it being August, but when do you think we'll start to get a sense of what direction the Wahconah project might take?

Well, we asked, in in the order that we sent to the city council that they approved, we asked the committee to identify a set of recommendations within 180 days. So we want to move pretty quickly because, you know, let's hope that by some miracle, we can have a new facility in time for next season. I think that's pretty aggressive, but I think we have to move quickly so that we don't lose time, too much time in the planning and the recommendations coming through, and obviously, it will involve putting together, like we always do a jigsaw puzzle, of funding to make Wahconah Park a reality.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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