On Nov. 19, the Marietta school board approved a $300,000 contract with an architecture firm to design renovations to Northcutt Stadium, where the Marietta High Blue Devils play home football games.
The vote was 5-2, with Vice Chair Tom Cheater and board member Brett Bittner opposed.
Libertarian Bittner, who was first elected to the board in a special election in July 2012 after moving to Marietta in 2009, said there were not enough specifics about the project and he wanted to table the decision.
“I don’t have all the answers, and my default is no,” Bittner said.
The request for qualifications was advertised Sept. 17, and by the end of October, four firms had submitted proposals.
Based on a list of areas including the fee required, references, financial strength and completeness of proposal, staff selected the firm of Gardner, Spencer, Smith, Tench and Jarbeau for the board’s consideration.
The board approved hiring the firm, which is based out of downtown Atlanta and had the lowest bid.
At the November meeting, most questions posed by the Marietta school board members were answered by staff with the response “that decision has not been made.”
Bittner said making changes in later phases of a construction project is what drives up costs, and the board should not proceed without a specific project list.
Bittner was also the only school board member who opposed the SPLOST IV referendum passed in March by Marietta residents.
From that SPLOST IV, the district expects to collect about $55 million in the 1 percent sales tax between Jan. 1, 2014, and Dec. 31, 2018.
On the list of SPLOST IV projects is the Northcutt Stadium renovations, with a budget of $6.5 million, with the possibility of some extra funds pulled from the district’s building fund, according to Marietta school board Chairman Randy Weiner, who graduated from Marietta High School in 1985 and has a finance degree from Kennesaw State University.
Northcutt stadium lies directly west of Marietta Middle School, at the corner of Winn Street and Polk Street.
In 1940, the stadium was built as a public works project for $25,000 from the vision of Guy Northcutt, a Marietta board of education member, according to a plaque dedicated by the Marietta High School class of 1980 on their 25th reunion.
An exterior wall that wraps around the stadium is made of brown stone from Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park.
Scott Burton, the Blue Devil’s football coach, said a renovated stadium will help build the team back to elite status.
“Marietta is a first class community; it has always had a first class football program,” Burton said.
Marietta High School typically dresses 80 to 85 players per game, with a coaching staff of 10 people, said Athletic Director Paul Hall, who was a Blue Devil linebacker from 1986-88, and served as a varsity football assistant for 14 seasons.
Being on the Northcutt field, “it meant something,” Hall said.
Construction on the stadium would begin a year from now, in the fall or winter of 2014 after the last home game, Hall said. Adjustments would be made to the Blue Devil’s football schedule, with the last games of the season played away.
Hall said he hopes the 2015 season will start as normal and not have to play the first few games away. The typical season includes five home and five away games.
“I am looking forward to it. I think it is well overdue,” Hall told the board at their Nov. 19 meeting.
For an event like homecoming, $18,000 to $20,000 is raised in ticket sales alone, Hall said.
There are at least 200 season subscribers that have been consistent ticketholders for decades, Hall said.
“They will them to other people,” Hall said.
The discussions surrounding improvements to Northcutt point to an entire overhaul of the stadium, but Wiener admits the list is very preliminary and nothing is set in stone.
“Really everything needs to be redone,” Wiener said, who added there have been no major renovations at Northcutt in 80 years.
The entire electrical system needs replaced, including a PA system and flood lights. All the plumbing needs replaced to stop flooding in areas.
“The bathrooms are horrendous,” Wiener said.
The existing concession stand area would be removed and a new plaza or mezzanine would be built to give better flow of spectator traffic with no bottlenecks.
Weiner said the plans will most likely include a new row to the parking lot, adding about 60 parking spots.
“We would love to have a brand new score board,” Hall said, but he knows some of those items would take donations or sponsors.
The football field will need to be expanded because the sideline is only 15 feet wide on the home side and 12 feet on the visitor side, which has created a concern about injuries to cheerleaders and football players that could be rushed into the wall.
Widening the perimeter of the field would mean removing the first three rows of bleachers from the home side, Hall said, but those seats will be recovered by adding more bleachers to the top of the stands.
The concrete bleachers at Northcutt need an update, and Hall has requested more seats to go from the 6,400 available now to the 7,000 required by the Georgia High School Association to host playoff games.
Most of the Blue Devils’ away games are played on turf, said Scott Burton, the Marietta High School head football coach.
But whether to install artificial or real grass is one of those future-date decisions by the school board.
Turf can provide for longer use, but there is a large initial cost. And grass has a large upkeep cost, Hall said.
He added there are thousands of styles of turf and opinions on either side about artificial or real grass.
But when asked if the turf will be the Devils’ navy blue, Hall said, “I can tell you right now, anything is going to be green.”
Cheater, who has been on the board since 2009 and has a Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering, said he has only seen an artist rendering of the remodeled stadium, but no exact list of fixes.
At the school board’s Nov. 19 meeting, Cheater asked specific questions about the number of seats to be added and what entrance access points will be added to the venue, but few of those questions were given direct answers and the architecture firm hired that night was not at the meeting.
“I know the horse is already out of the gate,” Cheater said about a design firm being hired. “But, I don’t’ have a comfort level that we have considered everything.”
Cheater said his concern is getting the best utility and efficiency for the constrained space, not stopping a project that was passed by voters.
For one, Cheater said by widening the stadium and adding more parking spaces, he is worried about encroaching on the practice field, which is essentially a long patch of grass buffering the parking lot and the stadium.
Cheater said the middle school uses the field for physical education classes and soccer games.
Cheater said the field would be almost entirely lost with the widening of the stadium, and leave the middle school with no land to expand if enrollment increases 15 to 20 percent in coming years.
He added it is the city’s goal to attract young, home-buying professionals with families to Marietta.
Weiner insists more than half of the practice field will be maintained, which is also were alumni tailgate before the games.
“We want to keep a good portion of the green space,” Weiner said.
With a growing student body and expanding city, Cheater said the list of changes seem to revamp the stadium to match today’s needs, but not future events.
“Will this renovation be enough for another 70 years?” Cheater asked, or will the school board have to go back to taxpayers in five, 10, 15 years to get money for a new stadium?
Cheater said there needs to be more evaluation to find out the best viable option.
Cheater asked if less expensive, short-term fixes the better solution, pointing to critical issues at the Northcutt Stadium, like the electrical and plumbing problems.
“Let’s be really purposeful with what we are doing,’ Cheater said.
When discussing the needed Northcutt renovations, the school board chose to keep the stadium in its historic location, said board member, Tony Fasola, who after two terms decided not to run for re-election in November.
Fasola’s seat will be filled next month by Jason Waters, the first vice president and a commercial relationship manager at SunTrust Bank.
“It is an integral part of the neighborhood,” Fasola said, who added he did not see the decision as a sacrifice for a brand new venue.
The stadium is so close to residential property, that a neighbor who shares a property line with one end zone had a football stuck in their pine tree this season.
Fasola said he also likes that the stadium has no track around the field, unlike most arenas.
“It brings the field closer to the crowd,” Fasola said.
Cheater said he is not sure if the SPLOST IV vote legally binds the district to spend the $6.5 million at the existing Northcutt stadium.
If the high school stadium has to stay at the existing site, then Cheater said he would like to consider closing Cleburne Avenue to the west of Northcutt, and expand the stadium past that alleyway.
“I would like us to evaluate purchasing land,” Cheater said.
If not, Cheater said the bulk of the money should be saved to build a new stadium, perhaps at the existing large track and field arena directly behind Marietta High School.
Cheater said he understands there is a lot of tradition with the Northcutt stadium and the centralized location is convenient for the community.
But given the large disruption to the Marietta Middle School during construction, renovating Northcutt may not be the best option for residents.
“Tradition cannot trump the needs of educating our students,” Cheater said. “Our mission is educating kids and making them successful.”