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Friday Night Fever

While many districts struggle to make ends meet, other districts are constructing lavish football fa

It seems outrageous at first: spend millions of dollars on a high school sports facility instead of academic programs and facilities. Yet many districts are building enormous, extravagant football stadiums and field houses, and it's benefiting students and communities to boot.

Football is clearly king in many communities. But nowhere is this trend more apparent than in the South, where Friday Night Football is less a pastime and more like a religion.

When it comes to football stadiums, bigger is better, especially in the southern states. The frenzy around Friday Night Football reaches a fever pitch; during football season, community life seems to revolve around the weekly game.

"Football is a big part of a school's and the community's culture," says Irene Nigaglioni, a partner in Houston-based PBK, an architecture and engineering firm. "It becomes a community event. It's the one thing to do on a Friday night. There's a sense of community pride and involvement for so many people."

It makes sense, therefore, that many districts in Texas, Georgia and Oklahoma are building professional-like stadiums for upwards of 10,000 spectators, many with VIP boxes where lucky football fans can watch the game in air-conditioned splendor while enjoying lavish meals or hors d'oeuvres and wine.

In other areas of the country where football is important but isn't quite the center of Friday night community life, facilities tend to be much less elaborate. Most high schools have a simple field and bleachers that can hold a crowd of 2,000 to 3,000 spectators. Field houses tend to be utilitarian and sparse, containing locker rooms, rest rooms, coach offices and storage space.

But not all of today's Southern high schools are building big when it comes to football. Many are staying small, building just what they need to serve their student athletes.

The Wakulla School District in Crawfordsville, Fla., built out of necessity. "This is something that was sorely needed here and should've been done 15 years ago," says superintendent David Miller. "This project brought the dressing facilities for football to today's standards."

The high school's former locker rooms and coach's offices were located under the football stadium in a structure that was built more than 30 years ago and that does not meet today's building codes.

A new 7,000-square-foot, $1.5 million complex has locker rooms, concession stands, ticket booths and rest rooms to serve the high school student population of 1,300. Other school athletes use the facility too.

"It was a safety issue and one of need more than anything else, and we did it with the idea of meeting as many needs as possible," Miller points out. "We did it for the kids."

Inspired by the Pros

Although districts may be inspired by professional football stadiums and facilities, they need to be budget conscious and aware of what's really necessary for their student and community populations. A design can get carried away and costs can get out of hand when a district tries to mimic a professional field, according to Tom Oehler, managing partner of SHW Group, an architectural firm in Austin, Texas.

"At the high school level, because it's an educational facility, the stadium as a venue should be designed around the athletes and be less about the spectator," Oehler points out. "In major 80,000-seat stadiums where people are spending $200-plus for a ticket for professional games, perfect sight lines are an issue. For high school football games, where people have paid $5 for a ticket, it's not as important to provide as comfortable a seating experience, for instance. It's important to keep things in perspective for a cost-effective facility."

"We want the spectator to be as much a part of the game as possible, but we would rather have the money go toward having the best venue for the athlete, or whoever is using it." -Tom Oehler, managing partner, SHW Group, Austin, Texas

Professional stadiums are designed on a radius, with the seats approaching the end zone beginning to turn towards the 50-yard line. This allows all persons to have a clear sight line without turning their necks to see the field. However, as Oehler points out, it's more expensive to build on a radius, as opposed to simple straight rows of bleachers.

Raising Money

"We want the spectator to be as much a part of the game as possible, but we would rather have the money go toward having the best venue for the athlete, or whoever is using it, be it the band or other competitive team," he adds.

Finding money for these facilities can be tricky, but it's not impossible. Some districts use bond issues, while others borrow money or save up until they can afford the new athletic digs. Many districts find ways to turn the building and stadium into a revenue-producing facility that brings in dollars to help offset maintenance costs.

In Georgia, the Special-Purpose Local-Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) authorizes a countywide sales tax of 1 percent over the normal state sales tax of 4 percent to fund capital projects. A SPLOST is passed by a county commission and voted up or down by residents in a referendum.

The SPLOST law has enabled Vidalia Comprehensive High School in Vidalia, Ga., to build a large athletic complex for its 700 students. The high school previously had no athletic facilities of its own, which meant that students had to use the city's facilities off-site. But the district has received two SPLOSTs that have allowed it recently to build softball and baseball fields, plus a 4,000-seat football stadium with an air-conditioned press box, instant-replay board and a field house that has weight training rooms, locker rooms and a meeting room.

"The beauty here is that there are eight corporate boxes that we sell for $20,000 apiece for a five-year period, or $4,000 a year," according to principal Mitch Harrington. The air-conditioned boxes, which overlook the east end of the stadium, have stadium seats with cup holders, sinks and counter space. For a $10 fee, box holders can munch on fare cooked up specifically for the event by the school's home economics teacher and students, including sandwiches, salads, soup and other light dinner choices. The food service gives students practice cooking and serving food.

"The funds we receive from the corporate boxes are additional that we can put back into the facility for upkeep," Harrington adds. The district has sold three boxes and will push to sell the remaining five boxes this year.

Harrington says the decision to go with the opulent stadium and field house was made to give students the on-site athletic facilities they had lacked for so long. "These kids represent us and deserve something back. They deserve their own place to play ball, and now we've got it," he adds.

Building for Safety

Safety concerns created the need for renovation of Pittsburgh's North Hills High School's 65-year-old Martorelli Stadium in 2001. The original stadium, several miles from the 4,700-student school, was built in 1940. The old stadium's visitors' bleachers had been condemned and dismantled, and the home bleachers had significant structural deficiencies. There were also safety concerns with the press box area, which had also fallen into disrepair.

The stadium was demolished in early 2000 to make room for the new Martorelli Stadium, which has 2,655 seats on the home grandstand and 1,868 on the visitor grandstand, for a total of 4,523 seats. Additional facilities include the press box, band bleachers, concession stands, a 13,000-square-foot field house and artificial turf field. The project, which cost about $10 million, also included a new six-lane, quarter-mile track and a natural grass practice field.

Tina Vojtko, a North Hills School District spokeswoman, says the stadium is used for soccer and lacrosse as well. "Using the stadium for only football can be a point of contention for many communities," Vojtko says. "But when you look at it as a multi-use facility, it becomes much easier to justify the costs. And when you look at the number of students who are impacted by the facility, you're looking at not only football, which includes cheerleaders and more than 5,000 people every Friday night who attend the games, it also serves the band and other sports, plus community events."

Even though sporting events are a big deal for North Hills High students and the community, the district opted to go with a facility that is less opulent and more functional. "Our mission is about educating kids, and it becomes difficult to justify the increased costs that are perhaps ideal and not necessities," she says. "At that point, you'll come under a lot of scrutiny, justifiably."

Serving Varied Purposes

PBK's Irene Nigaglioni sees the trend for multipurpose facilities like the field houses happening everywhere today, and the rental costs for facilities lead many districts to build large facilities for students, teachers, staff and the community. "There are several school districts down in Texas that have built arenas, and they've done it because they're multipurpose facilities," Nigaglioni says.

In some districts, facilities are built just for graduation, to eliminate the expense of taking graduations outside of the district, or to have places for teachers to meet for training sessions without having to pay a lot to rent an outside facility, Nigaglioni points out.

PBK designed the recently opened $72.9 million Richard E. Berry Educational Support Center in the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District, a suburb of Houston. It's not just a sports facility, says Pam Wells, the district's associate superintendent. The Berry Center is six facilities in one-stadium, arena, theater, staff development and conference center, satellite food distribution warehouse and catering facility-and the district combined them to save $4 million for parking lots that would have been required at separate facilities.

Although the Berry Center is an impressive sports facility, the building's biggest use is in teacher training and instruction-not sports.

The arena, which can hold up to 9,500 spectators, is used for training and graduation and is rented by area churches.

The conference center is also used for teacher training, student instruction, SAT testing, proms and dances, and the community uses it as well. Rental costs vary depending on the space, labor costs, any additional equipment or services required, and whether or not the group is a nonprofit or a for-profit group.

The 11,000-seat football stadium is used for football, soccer and bands.

A 456-seat performing arts center and staff development center includes new offices and a conference center that's used for seminars and banquets. Of course, there are ticket booths, rest rooms and concession stands throughout the center.

A satellite food distribution warehouse includes a central kitchen that cooks all food for the district, which is spread over 186 square miles.

The district raised the money to build the Berry Center as part of a bond issue, which was approved by 85 percent of voters in 2001. The bond approval was not only for the center but also for new schools, property, school building renovations, and instructional technology.

Cypress-Fairbanks, which has about 92,400 students, is building its ninth and tenth high schools for a burgeoning population. The district has another football venue, Pridgeon Stadium, on the opposite end of town. The burgeoning student population made the second stadium necessary, since each of the district's high schools has a football team and they can't all play Friday nights in one stadium. "We didn't want students to be playing football games in Texas at noon on a Saturday [in part] because of the heat," Wells explains. "We also didn't want one group to be playing football on a weekday night."

Activity Center Puts Union District on the Map

Although Union Senior High School in Tulsa already had a 10,500-seat stadium that was built in the 1970s and is still operational today, the district used bond issue dollars to build the 150,000-square-foot Union Multi-Purpose Activity Center (UMAC), which was completed in 2002. The $21 million facility, built at the south end of the football stadium, has a 5,662-seat indoor arena with a floor for four basketball courts but that also can be used for the prom and can be rented for trade shows or other events. UMAC has 27,500 square feet of exhibition space and 5,000 square feet of meeting space.

The suburban school district in the Tulsa area lacked anything like a civic center, says Cathy Burden, superintendent of Union Public School District. "It actually stabilizes and identifies our community as Union. We're a school district that doesn't have its own city-we're part Tulsa and part Broken Arrow-and no one knew who Union was. Now they do because we have a beautiful facility that offers us an identity."

Burden says when people visit the high school, it's often confused with a college campus. "When you realize we're a high school that doesn't have a town, you understand the reason," Burden says. The district has about 1,900 students enrolled at the senior high school.

"The funds we receive from the corporate boxes are additional that we can put back into the facility for upkeep." -Mitch Harrington, principal, Vidalia Comprehensive High School, Vidalia, Ga.

UMAC also has the Redskin Room, a VIP room with a balcony that overlooks the football field. For $1,000, one can join the RedZone and have a catered dinner in the Redskin Room, then sit in the stands. Local restaurants make bids, and one gets an annual contract to cater dinners.

To help offset the costs, the district gave the Union Schools Education Foundation the right to sell sponsor recognition for spaces, such as rooms and facilities, within UMAC. The money, which ranges from $1,000 to $750,000 depending on the space, is controlled by the foundation, which raises revenue to help fund teacher grants and other district programs that would otherwise not be funded.

For instance, John Q. Hammons, the Springfield, Mo.-based hotel developer and owner, was building a hotel nearby and gave the district an endowment for its foundation, so now his name is on the arena.

The facilities are rented to outside groups to offset security, upkeep and utilities costs. UMAC hosts more than 1,000 events each year, ranging from home and garden shows to cheerleading competitions, although most benefit students and staff.

"We do quite a juggling act between district and revenue-producing events," says Sarah McBryde, marketing director for Union Public Schools/UMAC. Of 1,007 events last year, 77 were outside, revenue-producing events. "Any revenue that is produced goes back to the district and helps offset operational costs," McBryde says. The outside events brought in nearly $250,000 last year. "We never expect to break even on our operational costs," she adds, "because we use the building so much more for district events."

Peggy Bresnick Kendler is a freelance writer based in Connecticut.