by George DeLuca
February 3, 2017
A group of Belvidere parents would like to see a new Lowell High School built at the Cawley Stadium site in Belvidere, and not at the current downtown location. “It’s a misconception that the people of Belvidere don’t want the high school in their neighborhood. The tide is changing. There’s a younger family base in Belvidere and we want the high school at Cawley Stadium,” said Belvidere resident Marty Tighe.
Tighe is a member of “Citizens for Cawley,” an advocacy group formed to spearhead the effort to build the new high school at the Cawley Stadium site. The fledgling organization was formed by Belvidere residents, but the group is working to inform people of all neighborhoods in the city.
The group recently met with Lowell City Councilor Rita Mercier, who was impressed with their passion and willingness to act. “These are the people that are fighting for their neighborhood, saying, ‘this is what we want.’ I admire anybody who comes forward to do this. It isn’t easy to campaign. And these people work and have young children. That’s a lot and I admire that,” she said.
Mercier, a Belvidere resident herself, was surprised by the position and initial findings of the group. “I was under the impression Belvidere people didn’t want it here and that’s just not true. There’s a lot of people that do want it. Don’t tell me and portray a message that nobody wants it in Belvidere. That’s not true,” she said.
When the group approached Mercier, she suggested they circulate a petition to gauge public interest in moving the high school to the Cawley site. Each member is now gathering signatures in neighborhoods throughout the city.
One of the group’s leaders, Eric Nelson is canvassing his neighborhood in Belvidere, but he’s also encouraged by the positive reaction of the people in the other neighborhoods of Lowell. “It’s a weekend effort, so we’ve only gone around a couple of days. We have about 200-300 signatures right now and we’re hearing positive things,” he said.
A cost analysis that breaks down all remaining options has been released to the public. Details will be discussed publically at a special meeting of the City Council School Building Committee on February 7 at 10 a.m. at the mayor’s reception room in City Hall, and again that evening at the City Council meeting. The following night, the results will be discussed at the Belvidere Neighborhood Group meeting at the Sullivan Middle School auditorium at 6:30 p.m.
Mercier is studying all available information about the alternatives including those that impact the students, parents, downtown businesses, the tax base, and city marketing. “I have to balance the pros and cons before I make a final decision,” she said.
The “Citizens for Cawley” feel that the downtown location would not be a feasible site due to ultra-difficult logistics and the high potential for delays and cost overruns.
The most active participants in the group are parents with elementary and middle school age children. Their main concern is that any project on the current site may disrupt and damage their children’s high school experience irreparably.
The three group members interviewed for this story have ten children among them, “and they’re all facing high school age so this issue is at the forefront of our mind. We also all grew up in the city and we decided to stay in Lowell, so for the short term we don’t want our kids in mobile classrooms,” Tighe said.
Lowell City Councilor Dan Rourke has school aged children in the fifth and eighth grades who will be directly affected by the decision. “One day in a modular classroom is one day too many,” he said.
Nelson is finding that most Lowell residents aren’t aware of the details of the project, the options that are available, and the negative impacts of orchestrating a $330 million (more-or-less) construction project on-site with school in session. “People need to think about the ramifications of putting the kids through a mobile classroom experience over a four to five-year period,” he said.
Belvidere resident Dan Finn agrees. “I have a fourteen-year-old that will be going to the high school next year, and I have a three-year-old that will be going there in ten years. I don’t want either of them to experience high school in a modular building. I do want them to experience high school in a classroom setting most conducive to learning,” he said.
Mercier recognizes that a four to five-year building project at the current location may have a negative impact on a student’s education experience. “It may affect their ability to learn and it’s a lot of stress on people. I don’t know about all this disruption,” she said.
On the other hand, group members are excited about the benefits of having recreation and sports grounds and fields right on campus. Mercier shares their enthusiasm. “Isn’t it amazing that all the athletic fields are right there? There are many students that would like to take part in sports, but they don’t have a way to get out there. That may keep kids occupied after school and there may be a greater emphasis on sports,” she said.
The “Citizens for Cawley” are hoping that the city council will approve a modern, efficient, integrated academic and athletic campus style experience. “What’s best for the whole city is a brand-new state-of-the-art self-contained campus project at Cawley where there’s access from every corner of the City,” Nelson said.
Rourke remains open minded about the ultimate location of the high school, but he clearly wants a new facility. “This is our last chance for the next fifty to seventy-five years. While people differ on location, the overwhelming sentiment of the public is we need a brand new state-of-the-art high school,” he said. “The Cawley option is intriguing because it offers a campus lifestyle for all students.”
One issue drawing heated discussion throughout the city is the need for a traffic study and remediation plan, regardless of the chosen location.
“Obviously, the city would have to work with the neighborhoods with respect to traffic to alleviate any concerns,” Rourke said.
Mercier is aware that a new high school at the Cawley site poses traffic issues, but she’s confident they can be worked out. As a member of the decision-making team, she wants to hear from people of all neighborhoods so that she can take a position that best benefits the entire city.
“When people consider moving to the City of Lowell, the very first question they ask is ‘how’s your educational system?’ That’s their number one factor for moving here,” Mercier said. “It’s not about the quality of life of the people of Belvidere. I don’t know any neighborhood that hasn’t been inconvenienced by traffic. That’s part of life. This is about what’s good for the city as a whole.”