Athletic facilities to receive critical upgrades if bond passes

Published 7:37 pm Saturday, March 10, 2018

Deep in the bowels of Vicksburg High’s Memorial Stadium, the 60-year-old facility is cracking and rotting away. Years of leaks and water and time have exposed the rebar underneath the concrete in at least one spot, slowly eroding not only its aesthetic appeal but its structural integrity.

In a locker room underneath the home stands, the floors and walls are lined with dirt.

Frequent floods have left it there once the water receded into overwhelmed drains.

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“This place floods every time it rains,” said VHS boys track coach Shaun Archer, who also keeps a trash can behind his desk in the fieldhouse to catch water from a leaky roof.

Outside, Memorial Stadium’s 30-year-old track is beyond repair. The rubber running surface is gone, the underlying asphalt layer exposed in large patches all along its 400-meter course. A foot-wide strip of dirt, left over from an irrigation project and never filled in, creates a treacherous barrier.

Across town, Warren Central’s track features that same strip of sand as well as other obstacles. A few yards away, a large garbage can sits in Lane 1 to cover up a 2-inch deep, shoe-shaped pothole. WC’s track and field team works around it to practice, but the holes are a sprained ankle waiting to happen for any runner not paying close attention during a lap.

“Our kids know to pay attention when they get near the scoreboard,” Warren Central boys’ track coach Corey Wilson says in a dry, resigned tone.

Neither Memorial Stadium nor Warren Central’s Viking Stadium are in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. During events at both stadiums, disabled fans are seated on the track where a wayward ball or athlete could cause them harm.

All of those, Vicksburg Warren School District athletic director Preston Nailor says, are just a few of the desperately needed upgrades that make the upcoming vote on an $83 million bond issue a necessity and not just a vanity project.

“Anybody who questions this, I would love for them to see the condition our athletic facilities are in,” Nailor said. “When you look at our facilities that have been here since the 1960s, and now it’s 2018, nothing lasts forever.”

The vote on the bond issue is scheduled for March 27. The $83 million it will raise would go toward a $131.5 million overhaul of the VWSD’s schools and facilities. The most substantial projects will be at Vicksburg High and Warren Central, but every school in the district will get some sort of improvement.

A total of $17,366,580 of the $131.5 million is budgeted for improvements to the VWSD’s athletic facilities. It will be spread around to a number of sports, but the biggest projects are modernizing Memorial Stadium and WC’s Viking Stadium.

Memorial Stadium was built in the 1950s, and Viking Stadium about a decade later.

Parking, construction of new concession and ticket areas, the addition of video boards to the scoreboard, improvements to seating and the addition of artificial turf are all on the agenda if the bond issue passes.

“I think the safety issue is No. 1,” VWSD communications director Christi Kilroy said. “But so many times, our athletic facilities are the first and only impression people get of a community. So it’s important we put our best foot forward.”

The most visible part of the proposed upgrades would be the football fields at Vicksburg and Warren Central. The natural grass surface that currently exists would be replaced with artificial turf.

A modern artificial surface lasts about 10 years. Nailor said not only are maintenance costs for artificial turf cheaper over that period than those for natural grass, but the artificial surface would allow both stadiums to host events it currently cannot.

A number of Mississippi’s largest high schools have made the switch to artificial turf over the past decade. Of the eight teams in Warren Central’s Class 6A football region, only it and Greenville will have natural grass next season. In Vicksburg’s Class 5A region, four of the eight teams have artificial turf.

“Turf gives us the ability to do more on it at a given time. We have to play soccer on it. We have to play eighth-grade football, ninth-grade football. There’s only so many hours of activity a grass field can take,” Nailor said. “If we want to host a soccer tournament or a band competition, we can do that. Our kids and our community have said they want to walk in graduation at the football stadiums. If it rains the day before the ceremony, we don’t have a facility where they can walk. It has an effect on the school itself.”

There are also competitive issues with having artificial turf vs. grass. The two surfaces play differently depending on the sport. In soccer, for example, the ball slides across artificial turf faster and the field can be made wider to generate a more offensive-oriented style of play. With so many of Vicksburg and Warren Central’s opponents playing on artificial turf, there is a growing competitive imbalance.

“Out of the Little Six Conference schools that we match up with in eighth and ninth grade, we are the only school that does not have turf,” Nailor said. “I don’t believe in keeping up with the Joneses, but we need to be on the same thing as everybody else.”

Like adding artificial turf, Nailor said installing new tracks at both schools will pay hidden dividends and save money in the long run.

The VWSD schools have not hosted a track meet since 2011 because of their degraded facilities. Sending them to a meet costs about $200 per team — a number often multiplied by four for two schools that each have a boys and girls team.

Away teams also typically pay an entry fee at track meets and spend the day there. Adding that money to the savings of not traveling for every meet could turn track and field into a revenue-generating sport.

A new track and modern facility could allow the VWSD to host as many as four high school meets each season — one for each school in the regular season, plus a divisional and regional meet in the postseason. Each meet would feature anywhere from two to a dozen schools. The high schools could also host AAU meets in the summer.

“That’s one of the biggest revenue generators there is, and we’re missing out on it,” Nailor said. “If we can run four meets a year, there is a bunch of cost savings associated with that.”

Other money would go toward structural improvements, which are especially needed at Memorial Stadium. There is exposed rebar under the home bleachers, and the visitor’s stands have been eroding for more than a decade. Ground and rainwater have been seeping underneath the concrete bleachers for years and are slowly causing them to collapse.

In July 2016, one section of the visitor’s stands was removed and replaced with a picnic area because it was no longer structurally sound. Other areas of the stadium will eventually succumb to the same fate. There are a number of large, visible cracks and loose chunks of concrete on the visitor’s side.

“When concrete cracks, it crumbles. And when it crumbles, it falls. And when it falls, that’s not safe for anybody,” Nailor said.

A number of the other improvements on the project list would fall into a similar category. Warren Central’s baseball field would receive drainage improvements in the outfield and a turf infield to make it more playable.

Vicksburg High’s Showers Field, currently the baseball team’s practice field, would get new lights and a general renovation to turn it into the school’s home field. VHS has played its home games a couple of miles away at the city-owned Bazinsky Field since 1998.

Vicksburg Junior High’s football field will keep its natural grass playing field, but will have it leveled off to remove divots. Other upgrades to the stands, pressbox and scoreboard are also on tap.

Kilroy said indoor sports such as volleyball and basketball will benefit from the larger renovation projects at the two high schools.

“It’s not just football,” Nailor said. “This will be spread around so there’s equity in every program.”

About Ernest Bowker

Ernest Bowker is The Vicksburg Post's sports editor. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post's sports staff since 1998, making him one of the longest-tenured reporters in the paper's 140-year history. The New Jersey native is a graduate of LSU. In his career, he has won more than 50 awards from the Mississippi Press Association and Associated Press for his coverage of local sports in Vicksburg.

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