BANGOR, Maine -- J. Henry "Hank" Cameron Stadium is starting to display its new personality.
Where until this summer there was a concrete grandstand that served audiences for events ranging from a National Football League exhibition game to youth track meets for nearly seven decades, there are now brand-new metal bleachers for 2,800 fans, topped by a press box.
The new bleacher seating, installed over the last three weeks, is the first noticeable upgrade in a planned two-phase, $4 million effort to restore the multisport facility operated by the city's school department that is home to the Bangor and John Bapst of Bangor high school football programs, Bangor Youth Football, other school sports teams, numerous track and field events, and walkers and joggers from throughout the Queen City.
"It has a real stadium feel, and both the community and the athletes deserve that," said Bangor superintendent Betsy Webb.
The bleachers were used for the first time Monday afternoon by fans watching a junior varsity football game between Bangor and Brewer, followed by a freshman football game Thursday between Bangor and Waterville.
"Everyone who has seen the bleachers has had very positive things to say," said Bangor High School athletic administrator Steve Vanidestine. "They're saying it's much bigger and more impressive than what they thought it was going to be."
The bleacher installation was completed approximately a week ahead of schedule as the focal point of the $1.65-million first phase of the project. That initial phase focused on addressing health and safety concerns that have plagued the facility in recent years, including handicapped accessibility, the general degradation of a grandstand built in 1944, and an outdated and weather-worn electrical system.
The yet-to-be-financed second phase of the project would involve the installation of an artificial-turf field, new locker room facilities and the expansion of the track surrounding the field from six to eight lanes with the ultimate goals of providing a modern athletic complex for users young and old and enabling the stadium to serve as an economic engine for the city as a host site for state and regional high school championship events.
The first phase, which also includes a new lighting system for the complex, has been funded through a $1.2 million bond approved by the Bangor City Council, an already established Cameron Stadium contingency fund and money raised by The Friends of Cameron Stadium nonprofit group.
The bond was approved by the City Council in late May, followed by a bidding process for several aspects of the project including grandstand demolition, seating, electrical work and earthwork.
Demolition of the grandstand began July 22 after asbestos found encased in a boiler room that once heated the building's locker rooms and restrooms located beneath the seating was removed.
That was followed by earthwork to prepare the site for the new bleachers, which arrived Aug. 20.
The bleachers are situated between the two 15-yard lines on the football field and elevated slightly from ground level in order for fans to see over game participants standing on the near sideline.
The bleachers also are 11 feet farther back from the field than the old grandstand to allow space for adding two lanes to the current six-lane track that circles the field.
Alan Kochis, director of business services for the Bangor School Department, said paving in front of the bleachers and in the stadium's concourse area is scheduled to be completed this week.
The space immediately behind the bleachers, which is slated to eventually become home to locker rooms and public restrooms under the plan, will not be paved now.
Portable restrooms will be available on site, he added.
The Bangor High School varsity football team, which played its first home game of the season against Edward Little of Auburn at Husson University of Bangor last Saturday night, will play its three remaining regular-season home contests at Cameron Stadium, beginning on Sept. 21 when the Rams host Deering of Portland at 1 p.m.
Other scheduled Bangor home games are the homecoming contest against Portland on Sept. 28 and a matchup against Cheverus of Portland on Oct. 19.
"It's right on schedule," said Webb of the project's first phase. "We knew it was an aggressive schedule. We always planned on being back there for our homecoming game on the 28th, but we were really shooting for the 21st and that goal will be met."
John Bapst will play most of its home contests at Husson University this season but is scheduled to play its homecoming game against Maine Central Institute of Pittsfield at Cameron Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 5.
All varsity games at the stadium this year will be played on Saturday afternoons because transformers for the new lighting system were back-ordered and will not be available until late October or early November, said Kochis.
The new lights will require fewer light poles than previously were used but will be more efficient, with 12 lights per pole focused more directly on the field, Kochis said. The new system also will save approximately $20,000 per year in demand fees, as it will be linked to the William S. Cohen School next to the stadium rather than connected to the power grid separately as was the previous light system.
Generators will be used this season to address the facility's electricity needs, including operation of the stadium's scoreboard and public address system.
"The bleachers are done, completed and being used," Kochis said. "The electrical work and groundwork continues."
Also continuing are fundraising efforts for the second phase of the Cameron Stadium project, with Webb hopeful that reaction to the work being completed this year will boost momentum for that effort despite continuing economic challenges in the region.
"The feedback we've been getting from people who have seen what's been done so far has been very positive," said Webb. "When we did the feasibility study for this project we found strong support in the community, and it's heartening to hear people saying that this is important to the people of Bangor."