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Once 'paradise' for local teams, Depew's Dawson Field faces uncertain future

Memories run strong at Depew's Dawson Field, where dreams came true with the crack of a bat.

But now this gritty athletic field, where thousands of children and adults have competed in sporting events since 1926, may close.

Dawson Field was put on the market in May, when voters in the Depew Union Free School District overwhelmingly approved a proposal to sell the 5.4-acre field at Columbia Avenue and Lincoln Street. The proposal was attached to a $6.3 million capital project to build a new sports complex at the district's high school, said Jeffrey Rabey, Depew superintendent. Construction of the new sports complex is expected to be complete in fall 2018. The new complex will host baseball, softball, lacrosse and soccer games.

"With a new field on our main campus, the Board of Education has determined that Dawson Field is no longer needed," Rabey said.

Dawson Field, located in the heart of a residential neighborhood, already has survived a roller coaster history of prosperity and neglect. It's the former home of the Depew High School football team and remains the home field for the high school's baseball teams, as well as the American Legion Post 1528's baseball team.

Today, the athletic field is freshly mowed but empty.

"Depew schools declared it surplus, and there is concern that the land would be developed as residential homes," said Depew Mayor Jesse Nikonowicz. "My residents don't want a residential development. From a fiscal standpoint, it would be good to collect taxes on the property, but the kids need a place to play."

Town of Lancaster is interested

Dawson Field has been used for baseball and football games for decades. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Topping the list of potential buyers for Dawson Field is Lancaster, a town that is experiencing explosive growth and is shopping for an athletic field.

"I have every indication that the Town of Lancaster would be a great transfer, but it's still in the discussion phase," said Rabey. "Our school board has expressed a desire to maintain (Dawson Field) as a recreational space. Since the new sports complex would not be complete until fall 2018, we would contract with the new owner (of Dawson Field) for a schedule of game dates to accommodate our baseball team during the coming school year."

Lancaster Supervisor Johanna Coleman called the potential purchase of Dawson Field "worthy of further review."

In July, the Lancaster Town Board approved hiring an appraiser for $1,400 to examine Dawson Field. But when asked what the appraised value was, Coleman and other board members declined to disclose the figure because it "could impact future contract negotiations."

Two Lancaster Town Council members registered mixed reactions: Matthew Walter endorsed the purchase, but Ronald Ruffino is opposed.

"We're in the process of purchasing a much larger piece of land – a 42-acre parcel – to create a soccer-lacrosse field and a walking trail in south Lancaster," said Ruffino. "By chasing Dawson Field, it impedes the progress of what we are pursuing in the south."

The town applied for a grant to help it purchase the larger parcel, Ruffino added. He also stressed the need for public green space in the town's south end, the lack of parking at Dawson Field, and its $20,000 annual maintenance cost.

Back in the day

Dawson neighbors such as Arlene and Nicholas Huson, shown here on Aug. 4 in their Depew backyard, enjoyed the view the field provided. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Dawson Field is named after J. Emmet Dawson, who worked in the Depew School District for 42 years as a coach, athletic director and teacher. Its rededication in 1996, spearheaded by former village recreation director Jerry Maciejewski, culminated a grassroots effort to rebuild Dawson Field. At the time, the field was plagued by drainage problems, tall grass, weeds and potholes.

"We brought in major-league dirt, 175 tons of Georgia clay, to line the base paths," said Maciejewski. "The kids loved playing on it. It was like playing on a professional field."

Neighbors who live on Olmstead Avenue love to watch the kids play on the field.

Arlene and Nicholas Huson had ringside seats for the baseball games. Their yard abuts the field, and they often sat in lawn chairs under a sprawling tree to catch some of the action.

"We used to get a dozen or two baseballs in our yard – broken windows, too," said Nick Huson. "I didn't mind. It was part of the game."

Walter Domagala, a former Little League coach and Olmstead Avenue resident, watched young baseball players hit baseballs out of the park and into his yard. Domagala would fetch the ball, identify who hit it and inscribe the name and date onto the ball, which he would later present to the player.

Dawson Field was known as a top field, one that Buffalo school teams would give up home field advantage to play on, said Michael Kotz, Depew High School health teacher and varsity baseball coach from 1974 to 2003.

"City teams would come to Dawson to play," said Kotz. "For them it was paradise. For 91 years Dawson Field served the area. If you put a building there, you'll lose the green space forever."

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