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Hope on the Horizon

Town’s Youth and Recreation director says he’s optimistic about the future for Saugus schools, parks and playgrounds

The town’s Youth and Recreation Director, Gregory Nickolas, said Saugus has long suffered from a public image problem when it comes to providing educational and recreational opportunities for its young people. “Right now, we have a bad reputation on the North Shore as far as school facilities, parks and playgrounds,” Nickolas said in an interview this week “But, we’re at the crossroads of being the community to live in – the gem on the North Shore,” he said.

Nickolas, a 1981 Saugus High School graduate, said his hometown has done very little over the past two decades when it comes to making investments in its education system, parks and playgrounds. “When we travel to other towns and use their gyms and fields, almost all of them have built a new school and field in the last 20 years, except for Saugus,” Nickolas said.

“The Veterans Memorial Elementary School was our only new school project during that time. Other than that, we’ve had nothing,” he said.

But with the town expected to vote in a special election next month on a debt exclusion to finance a new combination high school and middle school that would include a new athletic field, Nickolas said he sees hope on the horizon.

Crabtree’s commitment

In addition to the school building project, Nickolas said he’s been encouraged by the commitment of Town Manager Scott C. Crabtree to improve the town’s recreational facilities.

That began last year when the Annual Town Meeting embraced Crabtree’s $2million park and playground improvements projects. Crabtree requested and received $1 million more for parks and playgrounds during a Special Town Meeting last week – including $500,000 that paid for security cameras and lighting at three parks and playground that received improvements last year – and another $500,000 for addressing safety issues and improvements at other neglected parks and playgrounds.

“I absolutely applaud the manager for making this a priority. I also understand he has to change a mindset in the community. He also has limited resources to address it,” Nickolas said.

“I came to Park and Rec in 2004. Other than the three projects passed by Town Meeting last year, nothing has been done … I have worked for the town for 20 years – 14 in this department. And this is the most optimistic that I’ve been that we’re finally moving in the right direction,” he said.

Nickolas said he’s an avid supporter of the school building project, which he said will go hand in hand with improvement of the town’s parks and playgrounds – “I’m a taxpayer whose kids will not reap the benefits, but I’m all for it … The quality of playgrounds, parks and schools will decide whether families move in. If things continue going in the trend they’re going in Saugus, five years from now, we’ll be the best place to live.”

Son hurt on a playground

Just a few years ago, Nickolas wasn’t so positive about the town’s commitment to quality of life issues like schools and parks. Town officials allowed parks and playgrounds to deteriorate so badly they became dangerous places for Saugus youths. Nickolas’s son was among those who was hurt seriously.

While playing street hockey on the court at Anna Parker Playground, he ran into a pole in a chain-link fence which had broken off and was hanging into the court. “He ran into a pole, cracked his skull and severed an artery. He was bleeding badly. The ambulance brought him to Melrose/Wakefield,” Nickolas said.

“He wound up with a fractured skull, a bone chip and a severed artery. I had given the report to the previous administration, but nothing was done. This town manager [Crabtree] fixed it [the playground safety problems] immediately,” he said.

“At the Anna Parker Playground, we had to use yellow caution tape because the fiberglass on the slide was broken,” Nickolas said.

Potentially unsafe conditions exist at several town parks, athletic fields and playgrounds. Crabtree said the DPW will work with Park and Recreation officials in identifying the priority projects which need attention as soon as possible.

“I think the actual fund [to eliminate safety hazards at parks] itself is just the tip of the iceberg … But the whole gesture of funding is positive. That’s the mindset and the culture that the town manager is instilling – a mindset change and culture change for the better,” Nickolas said.

“The manager also knows it’s not just about building playgrounds. There’s the cost of maintenance. I like the idea of the new facilities being protected by security cameras, with the police having real time accessibility to minimize vandalism,” he said.

“There’s a good momentum happening to address the issues in a good way. It’s just what the kids and the residents deserve. This is an important Quality of Life issue not only for the kids, but also for the taxpayers,” he said.

A current facilities shortage

If there is a downside to construction of the new combination high school/middle school, it is that the shortage of recreational/athletic facilities will worsen over a three-year period. Several school and non-school sports organizations and groups which use the fields adjacent to the existing Saugus High School will be displaced when construction work begins on those fields.

Among the groups that use those fields for practice are the high school football team, the high school girls’ softball team, the high school girls’ field hockey team, Pop Warner Football and Saugus American Little League girls’ softball.

“If the new school project is approved, we’re going to have to find a home for these groups for the next three years,” Nickolas said. “As it stands, there are not enough quality fields to accommodate non-school athletic programs and school athletic programs. It’s a scheduling nightmare. School sports always get priority.”

“When the field comes off-line, it’s going to be that much more difficult. We’re hoping to identify two fields that are acceptable for use which can have a facelift so we can take care of those displaced groups,” he said.

The Oaklandvale, Lynnhurst and Waybright Schools are expected to cease being schools at some point so, Nickolas said, the town doesn’t want to invest too much money into those properties. “But, we’re going to have to look at doing some cosmetic work on some of these schools,” he said.

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