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Too Easy to Be True?

Holyoke plans to demolish and replace Mackenzie Stadium’s historic field house.

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Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The grandstand at Mackenzie Stadium slopes down the hillside from the parking lot at Holyoke High School to the foul line on the first base side. There the field’s green grass stretches serenely to the outfield fence along Beech Street. From the stands, the line of houses facing the park from across the street is easily visible, as is the distant ridge of the Holyoke Range, running across the horizon between left field and right.

At first glance, the field seems like a lovely spot to watch a baseball game. Though with a seating capacity of just over 4,000, the term “stadium” seems a bit generous.

The grounds have been an urban park for well over a century, and were known as Elmwood Park when originally built in the 1890s. The WPA (Works Project Administration) added permanent bleachers and a field house in 1938. A year later, Mackenzie Stadium was dedicated in honor of World War I veteran John Mackenzie.

However, it was not the baseball stadium, but the field house I’d come to find. Holyoke’s Parks and Recreation department is seeking a Parkland Acquisitions and Renovations for Communities (PARC) grant of $400,000 from the state’s Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs in order to demolish and rebuild the historic field house, which lies next to the left field foul pole but is rendered inaccessible by the chain link fence that surrounds it.

Walking across the grandstand, I headed toward the field house as a few ballplayers began arriving for a Tri-County League game. The stadium regularly hosts Tri-County games, and is also home to Holyoke High, Elms College, and the Valley Blue Sox—formerly the Holyoke Blue Sox—of the New England Collegiate Baseball League.

One of the players parked his truck—rock music blaring—next to the high school and greeted his teammate with a high five. I asked him about the field house.

“Oh, yeah, that’s it,” he said, noting that it hasn’t been open in four years.“It’s pretty disgusting in there. Definitely needs to be fixed up.”

As the Tri-County players got ready for their game, six people—including department director Terry Shepard and Blue Sox president and CEO Clark Eckhoff—met across town in Room 14 in the basement of City Hall to discuss the plan to demolish and rebuild the Mackenzie field house.

“Three of the five people who showed up were from the Blue Sox,” Shepard told me later. “They really want the renovation.”

Eckhoff told me it was a “very positive meeting” when we spoke over the phone a couple of days later. He was busy getting ready for that night’s game, which the Blue Sox would lose to the Mystic Schooners 9-2 in front of 1,640 fans.

Prior to purchasing the Blue Sox, Eckhoff owned the Wisconsin Woodchucks—formerly the Wausau Woodchucks—of the Northwoods League, another collegiate baseball league.

Ryan McCollum, a marketing and political consultant hired by the Blue Sox, told me his clients think Mackenzie Stadium is a unique spot, “a diamond in the rough.”

Everyone I talked to about the field house was in favor of the department’s plan, which surprised me. Plans to demolish the field house were covered by local media. The city held a public hearing. Even though the field house looks like a decrepit pile of bricks, it is still a WPA building. Where were the historic preservationists? Does anyone think the building worth saving? Is anyone concerned about the appropriation of public funds to replace the field house? Did they notice the process? Or does the enjoyment of summertime baseball trump such concerns?

Even Shepard acknowledged that the field house is “a very cool building,” but added that it is “cost-prohibitive” to renovate.

When she mentioned renovations would cost $1 million, I was certain we were talking about different buildings. But Shepard explained that the field house has six different levels, all on different grades, even though from the outside it appears to be a simple one-story structure.

Maybe $400,000 isn’t so expensive?

The Parks and Recreation department sent their grant application on June 18, two days after they held their public hearing.

McCollum told me that he expects the demolition and replacement of the field house to occur as planned, but that he’s dealt with government officials enough to understand that you never really know for sure.

“Simple things can become complex,” he said, “and complex things can be simple.”•

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