Clay Center, KS – A new stadium complex with a turf football field is being planned for Clay Center Community High School. The $2 million project would replace the infield grass with turf, resurface the track, add brand new home bleachers and a new building for concessions and bathrooms, along with a concession plaza.
The project will be completed without any new district funds and without a tax increase by using funds from a private fundraising campaign along with previously budgeted funds from the district and from the sale of the current Otto Unruh stadium property. The district hopes to have the complex ready for the start of the 2023 school year.
The school board approved moving ahead with the stadium project last December for various reasons, most of which had to do with the condition and usability of the Otto Unruh football field complex, but also because of the long-term budgetary savings that comes from the switch to a turf field.
USD 379 Superintendent Brett Nelson said the current stadium, located in the west part of Clay Center, apart from the high school campus, is in poor physical condition overall.
“The plumbing and electrical needs to be replaced, the press box needs major work, and the restrooms and locker rooms need to be completely renovated,” said Nelson.
Safety and compliance at Otto Unruh
The stadium is not ADA compliant and has no handicap parking. Wheelchairs must be pushed across grass and gravel and there is no handicap seating for people in wheelchairs. There are no railings along the stairs for people who need that kind of support, the stairs are not wide enough, and the bathrooms are not ADA compliant. If the district were to decide to continue to use Otto Unruh and make some of those renovations, the entire complex would be required to be upgraded to ADA compliance, which would increase the cost significantly. An Opinion of Probable Costs was recently developed by a professional construction firm, which placed the cost of renovation upgrades and ADA accessibility for Otto Unruh at $3.5 million, which is well above the cost of a new stadium complex at the school.
Having parking across Highway 24 is also a safety issue. Jimmy Thatcher played football at Otto Unruh when he was in high school, but now in his role as Clay Center Mayor, he sees an unsafe atmosphere. When the parking issue is brought up, Thatcher said people say they’ve been parking across the highway for years.
“But when you talk to enough people, you hear how many were just about hit crossing the road,” said Thatcher, who pointed out some people also try parking along the highway itself. “If the new stadium does happen, additional parking would be put up there that would be safer and more convenient for the citizens that do go watch football games. There are also ADA issues within the stadium now, and those would be addressed.”
Thatcher said the facilities are not very good and you can tell it was built in the 1930s. Limestone going through freeze-thaw cycles degrades the stone.
“When you drive past at 35 mph, it is beautiful,” said Thatcher. “But until you really look at it, you wouldn’t realize how dilapidated it is.”
Usability of field affected by off-campus location
Having the football field in the west part of Clay Center, separate from the high school campus, decreases the usability of the facilities and causes logistical problems transporting kids back and forth from the school to the field.
Currently, the football team, the band and other students have to be bussed from the high school to Otto Unruh field every time they need to use it. As a result, the current field is only being used a handful of times by CCCHS students each year.
The addition of a turf football field to the current track complex, just east of the high school, would make it possible for students to use the new field daily, and not just for football. Plans would be for the CCCMS and CCCHS physical education classes to use the facility, the marching band could practice on the field, other sport athletes could practice on turf after rain when their fields aren’t usable, the graduation ceremony would be held in the complex and other school and community youth sports will make use of the new turf field.
If a turf field was located at the school, “all of our strength and conditioning and PE classes could use the turf,” said strength and conditioning coach Dalton Haist. “It would be a phenomenal resource to get us out of the gym, especially in the fall when volleyball nets are in there. We’d have the opportunity to expand the classroom outside.”
Haist said he would use it as much as possible because he likes to get the kids outside any chance he gets. Currently, he tries to get on the track, but they don’t use the field as much because of how rough it is and he doesn’t want the kids tracking grass and soot back into the gym. The hard field conditions of the current field also cause shin splints and Achilles problems when doing sprinting drills, so Haist said it was just more of a headache to use it.
The marching band isn’t allowed to use the football field at Otto Unruh except on Friday nights. So they practice on the practice field at the high school when they can, but the marked lines aren’t always perfect and there are times they have to practice without lines, according to Daniela Thrasher, Director of Bands for the Clay Center schools.
“The kids take a lot of pride in what they’re doing,” said Thrasher. “They are working hard for the community to showcase what they can do. The community is very appreciative.”
But just like sports or anything else that takes practice, they need consistency in their venue and Thrasher said the kids notice immediately if the lines aren’t quite spaced right.
“We are a real marching band,” said Thrasher. “We’re marching 8-to-5. (Which means eight steps taken every five yards while marching.) So it makes a difference to have the correct setup for practice.”
The band plays as a pep band throughout every home football game and has a halftime show on the field at every home game. Currently, when it rains, they can’t go out and practice at all, and sometimes they can’t use the practice field after rains if there is conflict or bad field conditions caused by the football team’s use of the space. Turf at the high school would resolve those problems and they could practice on the same field where they will be performing. Thrasher has taught in the past at schools with turf fields and she said it makes a huge difference.
“We manage, but it would be really nice to have turf,” said Thrasher.
Turf becoming common as cost-saver for districts
Having a turf football field is no longer an uncommon option for schools in Kansas. CCCHS is one of just two schools left in the North Central Kansas League that does not have a turf field and assistant high school football coach JD Lane said the players enjoy playing on turf more than grass. He joked that he is a traditionalist, so when they play a game and there are no grass stains, that’s not old school football.
“But you don’t have to worry about tripping on anything, or clipping a runner of Bermuda grass,” he said. “Our grounds guy does a great job. He works hard and the field is well-maintained. But as a football coach, the biggest advantage [of turf] is consistent playability and a consistent surface.”
This also decreases the likelihood of injuries. He said he has dealt with a lot of football injuries over 30 years.
“It is amazing, the number we’ve had on grass from ankles and knees,” said Lane. “The hardness of the ground is also an issue. We’ve seen a couple of concussions just from someone falling” without contact.
Lane also said there were studies that showed the recovery rate of athletes working on turf, rather than grass, was improved along with fatigue recovery, because of the decreased type of impact.
The constant availability of a turf field is a big deal too, according to Lane. There would be no time a turf field would not be usable in rainy conditions unless it happens to be flooded. But drainage is built into the infrastructure to alleviate that possibility. On grass, the team has to avoid certain areas of a field that tend to get wet.
“It’s a little more slippery and dangerous and harder to recover, maintenance-wise,” said Lane, who said the playability of newer turf is unbelievably-better than turf from 20-30 years ago. “It has a grass-like feel.”
The major cost savings gained with a switch from grass to turf is also a contributing factor in the decision to pursue this project. On average, Nelson said 1,931,235 gallons of water are used each year on the grass fields that would no longer be in use with the change to turf and much time is spent during the year mowing the grass.
“The district spends $66,337 annually on labor, water, fertilizer, seed and other expenses to maintain three grass fields that would be eliminated with the addition of turf,” said Nelson.
Turf is projected to last 10-13 years, but at that point, the resurfacing would cost 40-50% less than the original cost since the infrastructure for the field is already complete, so the maintenance savings would be even greater at that point and those funds can be redirected back into the classroom, according to Nelson.
Progress vs. nostalgia
The constant and convenient availability of a turf field located at the high school would be a big opportunity for student-athletes, according to Lane, who besides a generational connection to the football program, also serves as head track coach and middle school weights and strength training coach in the district.
He understands the nostalgic connection people have for Otto Unruh Stadium, but Lane is also a history teacher and has years of family and personal connections to Tiger athletics and the current football stadium. Lane was not supportive of the concept of moving the football field up to the school campus location when the concept came up as a separate bond question in the district a few years ago.
“I’m a historian. I teach history. I grew up in the high school, the gym and weight room and on the football fields,” said Lane. “My dad was the football coach. This is something I really struggled with… the history and nostalgia and that it was a WPA stadium.”
He said it has taken him some time to support the idea of moving the field to the school. During the bond election process, he would have gotten behind a movement for putting turf at Otto Unruh, but now, he said it wouldn’t make sense, though it has taken time to get him beyond those feelings.
“You’d be putting in a facility to use for games only,” said Lane about the concept of adding turf to Otto Unruh. “And seeing past my own desires, and nostalgia, and looking at the progress of this community and other schools and districts who have taken advantage of modernizing their schools and community, I like the idea of looking at pulling it closer to school.”
“With the exception of baseball, all activities would be within two blocks of the middle school and high school,” said Lane, who also looks forward to using the turf and its consistent surface for the training and fitness of his track athletes and opportunities for improved physical recovery after practices. “Seeing down the road, that would allow me to go beyond my personal connection to Unruh Stadium.”
The project is personal and emotional to Lane.
“I grew up riding bus out there with his dad and his teams, then as a player, then driving the bus as a coach… it gives me goosebumps thinking about it,” said Lane. “It was a special feeling. It has taken me time to get beyond that. It is not about me and not about right now or 30-40 years ago. It’s about the future.”
Lane quoted a Greek proverb that is featured in his classroom:
“A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they shall never sit.”
That is a perspective Lane is using with this project.
“Whether it is a turf field, or trying to revitalize downtown, or a new pool or businesses in town, we need to be able to look past our own hang-ups and nostalgia, and look 20 years down the road for our grandkids,” said Lane.
What is included in the
new stadium project?
Besides the turf field, new home bleachers (with a seating capacity of 1,600 fans) will be built with a new 8×30-foot press box at the top. The track will be resurfaced, a new main entrance will be established, and a new structure for the concession stand and bathroom will be built on-site by the construction technology class at CCCHS, so current students will have a very active and lasting impact on the project. The lighting will be upgraded to LED and a new scoreboard will be included.
The existing bleachers would be moved to the other side of the field for use as visitor’s section seating.
Parking would be to the north in the softball parking complex and on the practice football field, while handicap parking has already been established to the northwest of the track.
This parking setup offers significantly more spaces than what is currently available at Otto Unruh. A study was recently completed on designated parking spaces at both sites. The three lots used at Otto Unruh offered 330 spaces (200 at Hutchinson Mayrath, 65 on the district-owned grass lot southeast of the stadium, and 65 on the gravel south of Campbell Field). Designated spaces at the softball field complex north of the high school track/football complex total 387 gravel spots owned by the district. Add to that the space for parking available on the grass area south of the track, since it would no longer be used for practices, and even overflow in the parking lots of the adjacent schools, and the school campus location offers well more than the Otto Unruh area would ever offer and street parking would not have to be used.
Any extra funds raised through the campaign would be used for equipment for the track and field program, a larger press box, improved sound system and other needs.
Fundraising campaign will
help with cost of project
The community fundraising piece of this project would allow for the new stadium complex to be completed without any new funds from the district or through a bond issue or tax increase. A campaign has been established with a goal of raising $950,000 through tax-deductible donations and sponsorships, some of which would include naming rights for certain parts of the complex. The details of the fundraising effort will be released as part of a campaign kick-off on Monday, April 4.
To meet the $2 million cost of the overall effort, the school district previously budgeted $750,000 that would have been spent over the next 10 years on maintenance, mowing, water and other expenses related to the upkeep of the current football fields and stadium complex. According to Nelson, with the switch to turf, the funds will be spent up front and recouped over a 10-year period, so these are not new funds and they will not affect the mill levy.
After the initial 10 years, he said the maintenance cost savings will actually increase, because the replacement cost of the turf is projected to be about 40% less than the initial installation.
The remaining $300,000 would come from the sale of the Otto Unruh Stadium property for possible redevelopment, which could also benefit the community and local economy through an increased tax base and more jobs.
Thatcher, who has presided over the city council during a period of significant economic growth in the community, said the current football stadium property is prime real estate.
“It is a large piece of property that could benefit the whole town, not just people playing football,” said Thatcher, who said the demand for growth in the community was one of the reasons he was elected. “That is a direction I have to look at – who is going to benefit from this.”
Other recent big projects, that had people for and against, have ended up very popular. He said he has met people who have moved to Clay Center because of the new swimming pool, and the convenience store at the corner of Highways 15 and 24 has worked out well.
“Change is tough, and everything is a baby step when something new is happening,” said Thatcher. “But 90% of the time, change and progress is good.”
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A committee has been established to lead the fundraising effort in the community and the Clay Center Community Improvement Foundation (CCCIF) will support the logistical process for the donations.
For more information and to see updates on the project, go to the project’s Facebook page at facebook.com/ccchstigerlegacy.