Through four mayors, unaccounted millions in funds for supposed renovations and shifts in project goals, historic Memorial Field in Mount Vernon sat untouched and unrepaired. Westchester County tried for decades to jumpstart a renovation program at the city’s stadium. Every effort went nowhere.
County Executive George Latimer is now succeeding where others failed. A $25 million reconstruction program led by Westchester kicked off in August. The project envisions a renovated stadium, sports field, skate park and tennis courts, among other facilities, to be finished by the fall of 2021, in time for the Mount Vernon High School football team to return to the stadium for the first time since 2007.
Latimer, who pushed hard for the latest county-backed development, said he feels a sentimental connection to Memorial Field, as he graduated there. “The debt that I owe is to 14-year-old George Latimer,” he said. “The rebuilding of Memorial Field is a debt we promised to the community. I’m telling 14 year old kids today, this will get done for them.”
Once completed, the field will open for use by Mount Vernon, New Rochelle, Pelham, Monroe College and Iona College. Ronald Gonzalez, Mount Vernon High School athletic director, said, “We are excited about the prospect of playing some of our home football games at Memorial Field. I think it is exciting for our community to see Memorial Field on the way back.”
Memorial Field has been the site of the good, the bad and ugly through its long history. It was home to the Iona Gaels football team for 24 years, along with the Mount Vernon Knights. The Westchester Bulls, a farm team of the New York Giants, played there in the 1960s. The Jackson 5, James Brown, Buddy Rich and Ella Fitzgerald performed concerts, along with other well known acts.
The old grandstands were the location for filming the iconic 1979 Coca-Cola commercial featuring Mean Joe Greene of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Then came the bad. From the time it was opened in the mid-1930s, the field was the center of Mount Vernon sports. After being a prime location for local athletics and festivities for about fifty years, Memorial Field the facility became too deteriorated for use by the 1990s. In 1994, visitors were discouraged from using the wooden bleachers, which would later be torn down due to safety concerns. The field was last used for the graduation ceremony of Mount Vernon High School in 1999.
Efforts to rebuild the field began in 1994, when Mayor Ronald Blackwood appointed a panel to study the cost of a possible renovation of the field. At this time, there was a proposal for Westchester County to buy Memorial Field, which was met with backlash from the Mount Vernon community. After 1999, many consulting and construction companies were hired, with millions spent, apparently to no result.
The field deteriorated until finally being closed down to the public around 2007.
The ugly surfaced in 2015: An inspection by the Department of Environmental Conversation revealed that 12,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil had been illegally dumped at the site. The DEC fined Mount Vernon and ordered it to clean up the site, with estimates of the cost running from $1 million to $2 million. No one has ever been charged in the dumping of the coal, ash and slag.
But, like the prize fighter knocked to the campus, Memorial Field is back up and looking ready to win the fight for survival. After the new field is completed, Westchester County will not be directly associated with the use of the field, only to ensure it is well maintained by Mount Vernon, whose recreation department will coordinate the public bookings of the field.
“Many of the adults in our community have a tremendous amount of history at Memorial Field,” said Gonzalez. “I think it will be a ‘wait-and-see’ attitude on how impactful the new stadium will be on us all. We can’t wait to see the finished product.”