A Failure to Launch: Variety of Issues Keeping Maxfield Press Box Unbuilt

  • Nighthawks general manager Noah Crane makes an announcement during the team's game against the Valley Blue Sox on Friday, July 14, 2017, in Hartford, Vt. There has never been an official press box at Maxfield Sports Complex, so Nighthawks staff, broadcasters and reporters sit under pop-up tents. (Valley News - Jovelle Tamayo) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Upper Valley Nighthawks pitcher Ashton Raines makes a pitch during his team's game against the Valley Blue Sox on Friday, July 14, 2017, as reporters and broadcasters cover the game from under pop-up tents. There has never been an official press box at Maxfield Sports Complex. (Valley News - Jovelle Tamayo) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Nighthawks staff, broadcasters and reporters sit under tents at a Nighthawks game on Friday, July 14, 2017, in Hartford, Vt. There has never been an official press box at Maxfield Sports Complex. (Valley News - Jovelle Tamayo) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Noah Crane, general manager of the Upper Valley Nighthawks, at a home game at the Maxfield Sports Complex on July12, 2017. Pitching coach Tom Hudon is at right. Crane has been trying to get a press box built at the field for more than a year. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Purchase a reprint »

Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, July 15, 2017

White River Junction — The Upper Valley Nighthawks began last Tuesday’s batting practice without musical accompaniment. However, once the necessary electronics were arranged behind the Maxfield Sports Complex backstop, general manager Noah Crane was in search of some tunes.

“Adam Chase, please report to the press box with your phone,” Crane intoned via the public-address microphone, causing the player to jog in from the outfield and attach his device.

Despite Crane’s joking announcement, there’s never been a true press box at Maxfield’s main diamond. The field opened two years ago without one, and the Nighthawks last year used a large garden shed during their inaugural New England Collegiate Baseball League season. The shed wasn’t brought back to the property for the current campaign because a permanent, two-story structure costing $50,000 was to take its place.

Instead, Nighthawks staff, broadcasters and reporters sit at folding tables and under the sort of portable canopies seen at youth soccer tournaments. Unfavorable weather, erroneous and incomplete paperwork and miscommunication have combined to leave the facility without a feature Crane has repeatedly promised to produce. 

The general manager said last week that the press box will not be built until after his team’s season ends early next month. Next weekend, Maxfield hosts the five-day Vermont American Legion state tournament, which will bring eight teams and their supporters to the field. White River Junction Post 84 successfully bid for the event by touting a lighted site with a quality playing surface that could accommodate not just fans and reporters, but feed them the former easily and en masse.

“If you would have told me back in March that we would have started the (Vermont state) playoffs without a press box, I would have been shocked,” said Hartford High assistant principal Jeff Moreno, who personally donated funds for the project and persuaded the Hurricanes’ booster club to give $5,000.

Crane said 64 donations were made by individuals, businesses and groups, totaling $25,000.

The proposed building, roughly 40 feet long and 12 feet wide, is to house a concession stand on the ground floor and have space for roughly a dozen team staffers and press on the upper level. Crane expected to average a minimum profit of $1,500 in concession sales per home game, which over 22 scheduled contests comes to $33,000.

That’s a substantial loss for a franchise that survives on donations, sponsorships, merchandise sales and ticket revenue at $5 per adult. The nonprofit Nighthawks, who Crane said have annual operating costs of approximately $135,000, are averaging an announced attendance of 289 per home game through 18 dates, 10th in the 13-team NECBL. The team averaged an announced 434 over 23 Maxfield home dates last year.

The absence of a basic concession stand also means the team can’t offer hot dogs and pizza slices in addition to the more expensive crepes or pulled pork sandwiches currently offered by local vendors who set up at home games.

“Having a press box was of great importance for this season, and we would have liked to have started construction in March, but it was an incredibly late winter,” Crane said. “We didn’t have all the (fundraising) money yet, but that was immaterial, because we could have started (building) and continued to fundraise.

“If we had only raised $1,000 to that point, we would have still built it for the economic well-being the concession stand would have brought us.”

How did this happen? A mixture of miscommunication, minor error and oversight.

The saga began Jan. 31 when the Nighthawks launched a public campaign to raise $25,000 to fund half the cost of a press box. The local Jack and Dorothy Byrne Foundation would match that amount if it was reached. The team’s website said the building would be town property and promised it “will be used by the Hartford High School baseball and softball programs, the Hartford American Legion program and other groups.”

The original fundraising deadline was March 15, which was pushed back a month when only $15,000 was initially raised, Crane said. The full $25,000 was accumulated by the later deadline, but Crane said there was a short delay because he thought applications for the appropriate permits had been filed with the town of Hartford last year.

When that turned out not to be the case, Scott Hausler, then the assistant director of Hartford’s Parks and Recreation Department, filled out and filed an application on the Nighthawks’ behalf, requesting zoning and building permits on April 28. Hausler, the director of Claremont’s Parks and Recreation Department from 1997-2013, was promoted to the same role in Hartford earlier this month.

“Maybe that’s not customary, but I was feeling that we were collaborating,” Hausler said of filling out the one-page form on the team’s behalf. “I wanted to move things along as best we could, to be customer-friendly.”

The Nighthawks’ application was approved by the zoning office on May 1. When the permit and accompanying building plans reached Hartford fire marshal Michael Bedard, however, he noted the absence of a required stamp from White River Junction design architect David Laurin. Crane said he mistakenly submitted a draft of the building plans that had only a stamp from Engineering Ventures, the Lebanon structural engineering firm also hired for the job.

Bedard said last week that he would have been willing to grant conditional approval for a contractor to start work on the press box, but no one approached him for such permission. By the time the final and stamped building plans were filed and Bedard approved them, it was June 9.

Bedard said it’s normal procedure to send building-permit approval notice to the contractor listed on the paperwork, not to the owner of the building or the land which it will occupy. Michael Goodrich, a Norwich contractor and the husband of Nighthawks board member Deirdre Goodrich, was listed as the contractor, but his company’s address was incorrectly written on the permit application.

Hausler said he’s responsible for that mistake, adding that he cannot recall what method he used to search for Michael Goodrich’s business address. An internet search of Goodrich’s name and the word “contractor” brings up the incorrect address as its first result.

On June 21, Hausler sent Hartford fire chief Scott Cooney an email noting that the envelope containing the approved building permit had been returned as undeliverable and that he had told Crane he could come pick it up at the fire department. Cooney said last week that Crane took a week to retrieve them. The general manager said he picked them up two days after receiving Hausler’s email.

Crane said in mid-May that the press box would “definitely” be done within a month. In June, while addressing the crowd at a home game via the public-address system, he promised the building would be ready by July 1. During an interview last week, he initially said he didn’t know if the press box would be complete by season’s end. When asked later if the press box would be available for any Nighthawks home games this summer, he replied, “I think, given the timing, we have to say no.”

“That was optimism,” Crane added of his earlier pronouncements. “I couldn’t imagine we’d be delayed this much, but now it’s a matter of working around our games, our (youth) camps and the Legion schedule. 

“It would be unsightly and hard at this point. If it only took 1½ weeks to build, we’d weather the mess, but it’s a three-week job.”

Why wasn’t Crane more forceful and persistent in shepherding the press box’s plans and permits through the town’s bureaucracy? The Woodstock High graduate copped to not wanting to upset anyone.

“I’m not pushy, and I don’t enjoy confrontation,” Crane said. “I would rather wait back, and if it gets done, it gets done. If I felt that someone was doing something untoward, I’d speak up, but in this case, it was a communication problem and not a major priority for (the town).

“If I’d called every day it would have hastened the process, but that’s not who I am. We’ve got a relationship with the town that we benefit from a great deal. I don’t want to be ungrateful or difficult, so I will err on the side of letting things go.”

Sitting at a Maxfield picnic table a few hours before the Nighthawks’ home game last Tuesday, Crane looked a bit tired. He’s essentially a one-man organization, and he puts on games with the help of a handful of high school- and college-aged volunteers. As was the case last season, he’s not drawing a salary because the money isn’t available.

“This situation hurts us financially, but we’ll make it work,” Crane said. “It hasn’t hurt the game-day experience for fans. People are understanding, and they’re not losing anything by the press box coming on Sept. 1 rather than May 1.

“It will be in place by next season. It’s just later than we had envisioned.”

Tris Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com or 603-727-3227.