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New Richland 1 athletic facilities will come with big tax hike

Keenan High School in line for $9.47 million in upgrades to football field (seen here in October 2014) ; and new field house, 5,000-seat bleachers, canteen, press box, and scoreboard.
Keenan High School in line for $9.47 million in upgrades to football field (seen here in October 2014) ; and new field house, 5,000-seat bleachers, canteen, press box, and scoreboard. mbergen@thestate.com

A new Richland 1 district stadium at W.J. Keenan High School. New tennis courts at Dreher High School. Plush natural turf at district football stadiums.

Richland 1 is poised to spend $39.5 million to begin a series of upgrades to athletics facilities that officials say will make the fields better for competition and playoffs. But the work comes with a steep tax hike for the county’s property owners – $60 more a year for a home valued at $100,000. Stores, shops and industry will pay even more, though amounts will vary.

The projects will be the most significant construction and renovation work since Richland County voters endorsed, by a 2-1 margin, a $381 million bond referendum in 2002 for the rebuilding and renovation of the district’s aging middle and high schools. A second small tax increase was requested in 2007 related to an additional $35 million used to supplement the 2002 bond referendum. The latest projects will not go before voters.

The Richland 1 school board will consider borrowing a total of $60 million over 15 years at its May 12 meeting.

“Once we get those projects completed I think the schools and the students will be excited to be playing on those new fields,” said Ed Carlon, the district’s interim senior chief of facilities and finance.

The district will finance the athletic facilities improvements – as well as an additional $20.5 million in capital improvements to district elementary schools and the career and technology center – through the purchase of general obligation bonds.

The district held a series of public meetings to gather feedback about the proposal, which laid out upgrades for all the high schools. Carlon said some members of the public spoke about items they would like to see included, including expansion of the weight rooms at A.C. Flora and Lower Richland high schools.

“We have some requests that we may try to work in but the money won’t change,” Carlon said. “If there is money at the end, we may do some things that have been requested.”

Cumming, a project and consulting firm, did the facility study. Based on completion of the sale of bonds in June, the district would begin construction in late 2015 and complete all the projects in late 2018.

The most money – $9.5 million – would be spent to develop a varsity competition district stadium at W.J. Keenan High School. The district’s three other stadiums – Bolden, Memorial and Lower Richland – would be upgraded with new natural turf, new bleachers, new restrooms and other amenities at a cost of about $5.5 million each.

For James Starnes, a leader of Keenan’s School Improvement Council, construction of the state-of-the-art stadium is long overdue.

“When we passed the last bond referendum there was a desire on the part of Keenan faculty and parents to have a stadium at that school, but of course that was not included,” Starnes said. Over time, he said, “We came to understand it would be a district-wide stadium. The beauty of this is, all of the schools will get something – and guess what? – they will also get a stadium.”

There has been little public opposition so far to the proposed tax increase on property owners.

“I heard no discussion about taxes because it is something we know we need,” Starnes said, noting the age of some of the facilities. “If we aren’t willing to spend $60 on our kids, if we aren't willing to give money to our kids, then we ought to quit talking about education.”

Bolden, built in 1956, is the district's oldest stadium. Memorial Stadium was built in 1960 and Lower Richland stadium was built in 1970.

School board member Beatrice King said she also has heard only calls for the improvements when she attended public meetings.

“At the end of the day, what it boils down to for me is that we have to have a long-term vision for athletics,” King said. “We know that students who are engaged in athletics tend to perform better academically. They are engaged in healthy activities from a mental standpoint and a physical standpoint.”

With improvements to the athletic facilities, including bringing some up to modern safety codes, King believes the district can increase its percentage of student athletes.

The board had planned to move forward on endorsing the package at a February meeting. After some parents complained they had been unable to get information about plans for their schools, the district set up the community meetings.

Playing fields at Columbia, A.C. Flora, Dreher, and Eau Claire also would be rehabilitated and upgraded. New tennis courts at Dreher would be constructed and the old ones, which are not currently used because of drainage issues, would be transformed into additional parking.

Carlon said the proposal calls for locating the courts at Dreher if possible, although Memorial Stadium is an alternative site.

Among plans:

Columbia High: $3.3 million for upgrading footballand practice fields; adding sports turf; and new scoreboard, bleachers, canteen, competition lighting.

A.C. Flora High: $2.9 million for upgrading football field; adding sports turf; and new canteen,restrooms, competition lighting, parking, press box, PA system.

Dreher High: $4 million for new sports turf field; new tennis courts (there is an option to consider building courts behind Memorial Stadium); and adding new bleachers, scoreboard, competition lighting, canteen. Current tennis courts would be demolished and used for replacement parking.

Eau Claire High: $1.59 million for upgrading football field; and adding new sports turf, scoreboard, competition lighting.

Keenan High: $9.47 million for upgrades to football field; and new field house, 5,000-seat bleachers, canteen, press box, scoreboard.

Lower Richland High: $5.6 million for upgrading of natural turf stadium field; repair or replacement of bleachers; and adding new press box, scoreboard, restrooms, parking.

Charles F. Bolden Stadium: $5.87 million for installation of natural turf; replacement of bleachers; and adding new press box, scoreboard, restrooms, parking.

Memorial Stadium: $5.1 million for upgrading natural turf field; replacement of bleachers; and adding new pressbox, scoreboard, restrooms, parking.

What’s coming

Among some of the additions and upgrades in the $39.5 million proposal to upgrade Richland 1 high school athletic facilities:

▪ New district stadium at W.J. Keenan.

▪ Upgrades to football fields, and in some cases new turf, at A.C. Flora, Columbia, Eau Claire, Lower Richland.

▪ New tennis courts at Dreher.

▪ Natural turf at Memorial Stadium, as well as at new district stadium.

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