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Bumps and all, stadium worth doing

August 07, 2005|By Bob Maginnis

A citizen group's effort to raise millions for a new stadium at North Hagerstown High School is one of those public-private partnerships that everyone in public office seems to value so much, at least when they're running for election.

So why did this project cause so much contention this past Tuesday?

The short answer is that some members of the Washington County Board of Education seem to have forgotten who funds their budget - and how well the school system has been treated lately, financially speaking.

After the Washington County Commissioners decided to give the North High stadium project $300,000, as opposed to the $500,000 that had been requested, School Board members Roxanne Ober and Bernadette Wagner implied that the county board was being a wee bit stingy in view of what the county has committed to other projects.

Wagner went so far as to scold the commissioners, saying they'd failed to thank the private citizens who've raised more than $1.9 million for the project so far.

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That group, headed by John Williamson and Jim Brown, should be thanked, because without its efforts, North students would continue to be bused, as they have for more than 40 years, to South Hagerstown High School, for an ever-increasing number of athletic events.

In their July 26 presentation to the commissioners, Williamson and Brown noted that they knew from the start that without private efforts, the facility would not have been built. But in a recent interview with me, both said that the large donors they have approached have asked, "What is government going to do?"

At first, government wasn't expected to do much at all. When the project was discussed back in 2002, then-North High Principal Dave Reeder said that school officials were counting on fundraisers, donations and business contributions to pay for the stadium.

In October 2002, after the School Board voted 6-0 to endorse the project, Athletic Complex Committee Chairman Greg Slick said that the school would seek private funding for it.

I point that out not to oppose the idea of some government funding, but to say that if there is some resistance now, it may be because early in the process, some boosters were suggesting that private funding would do it all.

It would be difficult to "do it all" with private cash because the estimated cost of the project has grown from $2.1 million in 2002 to $3.1 million in 2003 and $3.5 million today.

And government has kicked in - $150,000 from the state, $150,000 from the county's share of Program Open Space funds, and now, $300,000 from county government.

That will still leave $700,000 for the private group to raise, which shouldn't be difficult, given what it has been able to do so far. Williamson told me it's been done with a disciplined effort, with the core fundraisers meeting every week for the past year-and-a-half.

They've also succeeded because their public relations have been as good as any I've seen locally in a while. They convinced the late Mike Callas to support the project, then announced after he died that they would name the stadium in honor of his years of service to the community and to education.

They have also made the case that the growth in the number of sports in the last 40 years means that the North-South arrangement that worked for so many years is no longer tenable, in large part because the grass field can't take the pounding it endures from playing host to more than 70 events annually.

Williamson and Brown were also smart enough to bite their lips when school officials announced that three years after the School Board endorsed the project, the system had decided that certain services, like architectural work, must be bid out.

You could argue that Williamson and company should have known this. But, not being education professionals, obviously they didn't. And having procured lots of free design work from architect Brent Feight over several years, they now have to tell him, "Thanks fella, but to get paid for any of this, you'll have to bid just like anyone else."

If anybody ought to be apologizing to anyone, the School Board should apologize to Feight, because members have known about his involvement for years.

In that contentious meeting Tuesday, some commissioners questioned whether this was a priority, as opposed to the classrooms. It's a legitimate question considering that general tax revenue will go into the project.

But there are two reasons why this project deserves county support. The first is that athletics, like band, teaches students discipline and how to work with others as a team, a skill that is increasingly valued by employers today.

The second, and most important, is that in a growing county, there is a need for such private-public partnerships. If this one can show others how it can be done, that's a good thing. Today it's a stadium, but tomorrow it could be a computer lab or a new school library. It can happen, if local officials treat private citizens as true partners by telling them the rules in advance and explaining what's possible and what isn't.

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