Rocky Fork Enterprise

Lincoln AD

Sanford proposes new football stadium bleachers

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Gahanna Lincoln High School could score new football stadium bleachers if financial woes don't get in the way.

Athletics director Justin Sanford asked the school board to consider the estimated $600,000-$700,000 project, during a March 6 work session. He said the support structure in the center of the bleachers on the visitors side has shifted forward.

Sanford said wood is rotting at the base, and rust is visible in the seams of the bleachers that were built in the early 1970s.

On Nov. 10, 2006, he said, Gahanna played host to Watkins-Memorial, which had fans on that side with a huge student section.

Midway through the third quarter, Sanford said, some students fell through the wood structure.

"Since 2006, we made a commitment to remove the wood and provide a metal structure underneath," he said. "There are sleepless nights for me on Friday nights, especially when teams like Pickerington Central bring a huge crowd. Every time I know the bleachers didn't collapse is welcome relief for me."

Sanford said the facility is used nine months out of the year. In addition to football, he said, it's used for track, lacrosse, soccer, middle school activities and Gahanna Convention & Visitors Bureau events.

"It's not just used three months out of the year," he said.

Since district leaders first gave Sanford approval to make athletics facility improvements through private investment, he said, more than $1.3 million has been invested during his 11-year tenure. Those renovations have included the Wilbur C. Strait Jr. Field, $700,000; Dubbs Roush press box/Ed Rarey Track Complex, $250,000; and the baseball complex/press box, $130,000.

"We've proven we aren't going to be flamboyant," Sanford said. "We're not building the best to just build and have it. We're so far behind our sister schools in the area. We're looking for basic solutions to the needs we have. We're looking to replace what needs replaced."

He said the district has done that through naming rights, pay-to-participate fees and partnerships.

Going into 2011, Sanford said, no one wanted pay-to-participate fees.

"There isn't anyone who doesn't have it now," he said. "Our athletic programs are faced with need. Football and basketball drive the support (for other sports). Those are revenue sports."

He said the first year of pay-to-participate brought $44,000, with $42,000 the following year. That revenue is distributed in thirds: athletics department fees for the Gahanna YMCA and ice rink; a facility fund to make athletics improvements; and the school board to offset coaching salaries.

"Consistently, we haven't dropped in enrollment," Sanford said. "That $40,000-plus will continue. In my opinion, it isn't going away."

Sanford said this is the optimal time to get the bleachers done because vendors who submitted bids for the project need jobs. He said he doesn't want to go through the stress of another football season, knowing what could happen.

Sanford has been consulting with a finance committee that includes Dewitt Harrell and district treasurer Julio Valladares. He also has engaged Heartland Bank for possible financing,he said.

His preferred option on a 15-year, $700,000 loan would be to make 75 percent of the payment through the capital outlay funds, or $45,000, annually, and 25 percent -- $15,000 -- would come from an athletics/stakeholder contribution.

Sanford said he thinks the $15,000 could be achieved easily, noting the instrumental music boosters' willingness to contribute to the cause.

Valladares said he knows of many ways to propose to best finance the project.

"I want to avoid a high interest cost for a $600,000 to 700,000 project," he said.

Board vice president Lew Griffin said he prefers that the board's share of the pay-to-participate fee go to the project.

"It makes sense, from an image standpoint," he said.

Sanford said the thought is to expand bleacher capacity on what's currently the visitors side.

"That would be our new home side for fans and spectators," he said.

He proposes that the capacity be expanded from 1,800 to 3,000 seats.

"This opens us up to post-season events because of seating capacity," Sanford said.

Board president Jill Schuler asked if it's necessary to expand to that many seats just to provide more playoff games and help music booster concession sales.

"We could go with a 2,000-seat visitor bleacher section," Sanford said. "Our home side would stay where it is. We could tear down and replace. The way I look at it is to do it right the first time. People are willing to give. They're not willing to give $500,000 right now. That check isn't there right now. This gives a number to show what we need."

Sanford said contractors would need to start work by mid-April to have new bleachers in place for the fall.

Valladares said he needs about two weeks to compile pertinent information for the board's consideration.

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