Dome set to open in Milford by July

MILFORD – As heavy, wet snow fell during the Election Day storm last month, several men were inside the Hampshire Dome watching to make sure the huge inflatable athletic facility stayed intact.

The structure had endured 12 years of winter storms, but on March 15, a large load of heavy snow in one spot caused a split in the fabric.

“We had dealt with this much snow in the past,” said Rick Holder, owner of the Hampshire Dome and the adjacent Hampshire Hills Athletic Club, “but this time it was extremely thick, pasty and the last 10 inches felt like cement, and two large chunks broke away at the same time, converging almost like an avalanche.”

The flexible PVC-coated polyester fabric was held up against its metal wire frame by internal air pressure from fans. On March 15, the men inside the dome weren’t quick enough to get to the weak spot, Holder said, and enough air escaped to allow a softening of the fabric, which was held up by internal air pressure from fans.

That caused a dimpling effect – “like a black hole that wants to suck everything into it,” Holder said. More and more snow fell into the dimple and it finally tore, letting the air escape.

“My team was amazing. They wanted to get it right back up the next day,” Holder said, but that wasn’t practical. Even if it could be patched back up successfully, the structure wouldn’t have the kind of warranty Holder wanted.

So, a new dome will be built, and it will be higher, with the pitch redesigned so that snow slides off faster, Holder said.

Two town land-use boards helped expedite the process when the Planning Board and Zoning Board of Adjustment met at an unusual joint session on Wednesday, April 12, giving the plans a special exception for the new 79-foot roof height and an expansion of the structure’s nonconforming use.

That “saved us a lot of time in the ordering process,” said Holder, who said they’re likely to have all of the materials they need by the end of June, with the dome ready to use by the end of July, at best – but definitely in the summer.

Normal operations at Hampshire Hills Athletic Club have continued with no interruption, including some of the activities that normally would have taken place under the dome.

Along with athletic activities, the 94,000-square-foot dome, which its website calls the largest indoor space in New England, hosts boat and home shows and other large events.

The New Hampshire Democratic Party’s 100 Club dinner was held there in 2008, with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton the featured speakers. With 30,000 people attending, it was said to be the largest political dinner in New Hampshire history.

But the dome’s main use is for sports.

“Judging from all the parents and grandparents who say, ‘When are we going to get the dome back up? The kids are driving us crazy,’ we realize how important it is to the community,” Holder said.

One other fabric athletic structure in New Hampshire was damaged during the storm. The bubble at Franklin Pierce University was forced to close after sliding snow damaged exit doors, causing them to leak air. No one was injured in either incident.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100 or kcleveland@cabinet.com.

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