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‘Yes’ gives Florence One high schools new athletic facilities

February 10, 2019

FLORENCE, S.C. – Memorial Stadium, a 5,500-seat neutral venue built in 1949, has been the longtime football home to South Florence, West Florence and Wilson high schools.

Is it time for Florence One Schools to have on-campus football fields where track and soccer teams also can compete? If a referendum proposal is approved on Feb. 26, that’s exactly what will happen, with Florence One Superintendent Richard O’Malley projecting those schools to host on-campus football games in 2020. Then, track and soccer would follow in spring ’21. Included would be improvements to baseball and softball fields and tennis courts as well as improvements for middle school sports.

Some people think it’s time. Others don’t.

Refurbishing Memorial Stadium or replacing it with a single stadium is out of the question. According to O’Malley, the three new football fields would cost roughly $5 million each. Building a new stadium or refurbishing Memorial Stadium would cost between $13 million and $15 million.

“If you could do it for the same cost, why would you put all your money – or within a million dollars – toward one place for just boys for a sport for four months?” asked O’Malley, who has two daughters and a son. “I don’t understand how people have that logic, even if it was for $10 million more. What do you say to my girls, who are soccer athletes, that they just can’t have what boys have? I don’t understand people’s logic how they just forget about girls. I guess maybe that’s just on where I’m from and that I’m raising daughters. I just don’t know how people think building a stadium for one sport for one sex makes sense.”

If the referendum proposal doesn’t pass, no changes will be made to the current home fields. No new single neutral-site stadium will be built, nor will Memorial Stadium be refurbished.

“Probably if the referendum doesn’t pass, we probably have several more issues with our buildings that we have to address before we’d even get to that point,” O’Malley said. “If there’s a failed referendum, we have so many failed issues within our buildings that are safety- and health-related. They would take priority.”

The word “stadium” makes O’Malley cringe.

“We don’t call them stadiums, because that’s not what we’re trying to build,” O’Malley said. “We’re trying to build athletic facilities. Here’s what we mean by that. The current stadium only serves football, just boys, for four months.

“Do you know we have girls in our schools? And what I mean by that is everybody wants to build a stadium just for boys for four months. I understand football is important, but it’s also important for me to give all kids opportunities to participate in athletic events on the same sort of playing surface.”

If the $198 million bond proposal passes, four new schools will be built – Southside Middle School, Williams Middle School, Savannah Grove Elementary School and a combined Timrod Elementary and Wallace Gregg Elementary school – and the three high schools will be renovated.

Florence’s Jim Smith, a retired health/life insurance worker who is raising two grandchildren, opposes the proposal.

“I agree that there are many things that need to be done with the schools,” Smith said. “I have voted for every school tax referendum since I’ve been in Florence in 1984. That’s a lot of money to put toward the stadiums. Now I was an athlete in high school (St. John’s), and I know how important this is to young people.

“I think the old stadium is atrocious. I think what needs to be done is the city, the school district and private businesses – and we’ve got good charitable foundations here in town – get together and either significantly improve the current stadium, which I think they need to get rid of and build a new one. Build ONE nice stadium that all three schools can share, just as they had done for years. I’m all for athletics, but I think what’s being proposed is too much. That is done in Columbia and Charleston. They just refurbished the one in Columbia [also named ‘Memorial Stadium’], and it looks fantastic.”

A single stadium shared by three schools isn’t what South Florence linebacker Judah Gray wants. He played home games – but not at home.

“I would describe it as an away game,” said Gray, a senior who recently was part of a Facebook Live discussion promoting the bond proposal. “You do basically everything you would do for an away game, except you’re not traveling as far as you would for an away game. You stay at school until it’s time to go. Then, you get on a bus, you drive there and go to the field house, which is just a big, empty room. Then you go out on the field, and there’s nothing that signifies you’re home or away.”

Former Wilson football coach Chad Eaddy elaborated on that.

“We weren’t able to practice in the stadium,” said Eaddy, now the football coach/athletic director at Bonner Springs (Kan.) High School in a suburb of Kansas City, Missouri. “We had as much experience in our home stadium as Myrtle Beach or Dillon or any team that we were playing, because they got the same amount of time that we did, if you think about it in those terms.”

Visiting teams often are left to huddle outside during halftime speeches, and hotel stays are paid for to make sure officials have places to change clothes and shower.

And there are scheduling challenges.

“The last home game for South and West has always been their rivalry game,” Eaddy said. “That left Wilson – if we had a final home game that week – to play on another night.”

Florence One board members also say it makes financial sense to build on-site athletic facilities for the three schools. Bryan Chapman said in December that three separate stadiums would generate more advertising revenue. And, according to board Chairman Barry Townsend, three stadiums could be built on property the district already owns. He added, however, that building two stadiums would involve the district purchasing more land, therefore costing cost more money.

The proposed three athletic facilities would account for 7 percent of the funds, and property taxes wouldn’t rise until 2021.

O’Malley told the Morning News earlier this year that the referendum is a better way to go than continuing the pay-as-you-go model that relies on short-term bonds that yield approximately $11 million per year (that is termed “8-percent money,” because the bonds are issued against 8 percent of the value of taxable property in the district).

“It’s a fixed bond over 25 years,” O’Malley said. “There is some fluxes in the market, but it’s a fixed rate. I’d say to people, ‘It’s like your mortgage,’ if you really look at how much you actually paid and things like that, and it’s over a fixed period of time. So, it’s not forever.

“And it’s for brick and mortar. It’s not for operational expenses. We are not looking to pay people more or something like that. It can only be used for what’s on that document.”

Smith takes exception to that.

“The cost of this thing is not $198 million,” he said. “With the interest they’ll have to pay on these bonds, it’s over $500 million. When you issue a bond, you pay the bondholder interest. And then at the maturity date, the bond is repaid – plus the interest you had to pay at that time for borrowing the money.

“Do you think somebody would buy the bond if they didn’t get something? They’ve got to pay the interest and the principal. The cost to the taxpayer will probably be $315 [million] to $318 million with the interest that has to be paid in 20 to 25 years. I know I sound like I’m against all this. I’m not so much against it as I’m against the fact they’re trying to pull the wool over the taxpayers’ eyes.”

Smith just wishes something different was in the referendum.

“We need to repair some of these schools,” he said. “If the proposal for the referendum had been to build two new grammar schools, make repairs at the high schools, build one football stadium which cost about $100 million, that would have passed with no problem. They’ve asked for too much.”

Meanwhile, the fate of football at Florence’s Memorial Stadium hangs in the balance of this vote.

“Of course, from a stadium commission standpoint, we’d like to see the stadium used for something,” said Gerald Holley, chairman of the Florence City-County Memorial Stadium Commission, which owns not only Memorial Stadium but also American Legion Field, home of Post 1 Baseball. “But we can’t say, because that’s not what we do. We’re just the ones who own the stadium. That’s the only role we’re playing in this thing.”

According to Holley, Memorial Stadium receives $13,000 a year from the city and county. That goes to maintenance, and a lot of it goes to insurance premiums.

The commission, meanwhile, has a lease agreement with Florence One Schools. The stadium receives $5,000 per year in either cash or capital improvements.

“It’s a rollover lease,” Holley said. “They don’t pay anything, because they are paid off because of improvements. They are paid off through something like 2036 (the $30,000-plus scoreboard installed at Memorial in 2017 was not counted). Since they built the visitors’ stands, about 10 years after it was built, they haven’t made any payments since then.”

If the referendum proposal passes, Holley is not sure what the next step for Memorial Stadium is.

“There’s been little talk,” Holley said. “No one has come up with a way for the stadium right now. I don’t know if there is one or not. I don’t have one right now. If there are people concerned about it, the concern might be what happens to vacant buildings/facilities over the years. And what is the upkeep going to be?

“Those are things we have to look at. We would have to ask if we are funded sufficiently to do that, because we haven’t had to keep it up through all these years.”

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