Howard School has land for new athletic facilities, yet chances for construction still appear dim

Howard School has land for new athletic facilities, yet chances for construction still appear dim

September 7th, 2013 by Yolanda Putman and Kevin Hardy in Local Regional News

Henry Slayton, vice president of the Howard Alumni Association, points out where recent floodwaters crested on the Gaston Stadium walls. Volunteers pressure washed the stadium on Aug. 24.

Photo by Tim Barber/Times Free Press.

WHAT'S NEXT?

Howard alumni will have another cleanup day from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. today to finish painting the football stadium. Volunteers are asked to bring scrapers, paint brushes and rollers. After sprucing up the stadium, alumni members say they would like to work on repairing the school's track. They're asking alumni and supporters to donate $10 each, hoping to raise a total of $1,500 for the work.

The football stadium at Howard School is so deteriorated that raw sewage tends to bubble up near the restrooms.

In the women's restroom, athletes and spectators are sometimes forced to tiptoe over standing water.

And the track is so pockmarked with damage that the school's sprinters aren't permitted to practice at their own school, let alone host meets there.

The school's state convinced 1963 Howard graduate George Maffet that he had to do something. The sight of children practicing football in knee-high grass made him cry.

"This ought not be," he said.

Now there is reason for cautious optimism in the Howard community, which long has sought replacement of the crumbling facility. Chattanooga has agreed to give the adjacent 20-acre Maurice Poss Homes property to the school system for an eventual new sports facility.

There's no money in the works now to actually construct one. The land is a blank slate.

Nevertheless, local businessman Gerald Mason, who has worked with Howard alumnus Reuben Lawrence and the Friends of Howard group to raise thousands of dollars for the school, said he is encouraged by the progress.

"That was the stumbling block we needed to get over," said Mason. "You can't raise money for a stadium without having the property. Now we'll go right into identifying the funds and where to get them from for this project. The Howard community needs this stadium."

Gary Waters, Hamilton County Schools assistant superintendent of facilities, estimates it would cost about $3.6 million to build a stadium with a track, football field and a field house with restrooms, dressing rooms and concession stands. It's unclear where the project ranks with Hamilton County school officials, who have tallied hundreds of millions of dollars in maintenance and construction needs.

"There are tremendous needs across the system," Waters said.

The city has given the school system six years to fund construction on the site. Otherwise, the land reverts to the city, said Travis McDonough, Mayor Andy Berke's chief of staff.

But even with a ticking clock, much of the Howard community isn't getting its hopes too high. After all, alumni have heard the promise of a new stadium before.

Former Principal Paul Smith told students and supporters that a new stadium was coming to the old Poss Homes land after people watched "Build Me A World," a documentary about the school, in August 2012.

"It's been mentioned over the last three or four years," said Henry Slayton, vice president of the Howard Alumni Association, "but it has never happened."

In recent years, Howard has had several rounds of physical improvements. The school system spent just more than $1 million for a new roof about a year ago, following a $17 million, top-to-bottom renovation in 2003.

But the stadium missed out, said Slayton. And no amount of cleanup can make up for the fact that the stadium lies in the flood plain of Chattanooga Creek. Heavy rains cause the creek to rise and water spills into the field and facilities.

Even with those problems, community members are working to maintain what they have.

"The county knows that this facility is old and probably beyond repair in some ways and so that's why we urge that one day, and hopefully soon, we will get a new stadium," said Principal Zac Brown. "But we're at this facility right now and we're going to do all we can do to have it in the best shape possible."

The school system recently delivered new paint and toilets, replacing stools dating from the original construction in 1954. In July, the school system replaced a septic tank, which cleared up the sewage problem, said Brown. And some 90 volunteers -- including 40 students -- worked Aug. 24 to spruce up the stadium.

Maffet said a contractor offered a discount price to pave the VIP parking area and the alumni association picked up the tab.

"We've got great kids here and great families and they deserve to have a stadium that is clean, that is pleasing to the eye," Brown said.

Mason and Lawrence said all the money they have raised over the years toward Howard's athletic department has gone back into the school.

The largest amount raised, about $185,000 in 2012, went to buy band instruments, said Mason. Now supporters are trying to raise $100,000 for band uniforms. In years past, boosters have paid to cheerleading camp and football players to camp. Some money also was used to help with the school library, he said.

But, Mason said, the needs at Howard have been so great that there has never been any money left to put toward a new stadium. Now he and Lawrence plan to raise money specifically for that purpose.

"We're going to try our best," said Lawrence.

Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at yputman@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6431.

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.