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Building a Strong Foundation

With the help of an exploratory committee and 100-year old athletic board, a Great Lakes school district looks at ways to renovate its stadium by preserving its traditions.

by Danielle Catalano

Muskegon (Mich.) Public Schools are rich in history. The school district dates to the 1840s, is nestled among commissioned historical sites, and its athletic advisory board—devised with the intention of ensuring Muskegon's educational values are maintained throughout its sports programs—just turned 100. Hackley Stadium, which houses several of Big Reds' athletic programs, was built during the Roaring '20s and is named in honor of lumber baron Charles Hackley, the millionaire whose industry helped develop this small city along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan.

Residents of Muskegon are proud of their traditions, says school district Athletic Director Mike Watson, so earlier this school year when an exploratory committee started asking the public for feedback on renovations to Hackley Stadium, Watson wasn't surprised at the findings.

"They want to keep the ambience, but modernize it," he says. "The stadium is a local treasure. It is a special place and part of Muskegon's mindset."

The exploratory committee estimates costs for modernizing the octogenarian treasure to be between $3 million and $4 million—none of which will be paid with public money. Raising this money will be the main task of the committee, a.k.a. the Big Reds Athletic Foundation, for the next three years.

According to Watson, the Big Reds Athletic Foundation is the non-profit fundraising arm of Muskegon's athletic department. "Sort of an off-shoot of a booster club, but more formal," he says. It is composed of Watson, several school board members, business and community leaders, and alumni, and it is their backgrounds that make this foundation unique, says the athletic director.

"Our expertise ranges from insurance and investment banking to construction and handling bond issues. We can consult amongst each other on a variety of topics, saving time to find answers," Watson says.

The foundation was created after Watson approached the athletic advisory board last year with concerns about the stadium's facade, security, lack of seating, and the need to bring the facility up to code, as well as requesting permission to raise funds privately.

"School financing right now is very tough," Watson says. "Given today's economy, it would have been irresponsible for us to ask the public to take on the burden of paying higher taxes to fund this project. Our board understands the unique partnership we have with the community, and it is supportive of our efforts."

The foundation set to task by first calculating the total renovation cost for replacing the natural grass field with synthetic turf, building a new press box, renovating the locker rooms, expanding the 5,500-seat steel grandstand, making the facility ADA-accessible, and providing appropriate security measures, including easing traffic flow.

After reporting the multimillion dollar estimates to the athletic board, the group began a market analysis on the public perception and needs of the stadium. The members approached each school in the school district, school-associated parent booster clubs, as well as youth sport organizers, discussing the upgrades necessary to make the stadium compliant and the structural and philosophical parameters of the projects. Next, the group listened to how school officials, faculty, parents, and organizers anticipated using the renovated facility.

"The public really wanted to keep the exterior traditional but understood that some things would have to be compromised in order to keep the purpose of this project in check," says Watson.

The purpose of the renovation's proposal states the stadium will,"provide the students, coaches, staff, community, and fans of the Muskegon Big Reds with a renovated stadium that represents the history of the athletic and football program appropriately and exists as a point of pride for the community and alumni abroad."

Watson stresses this point because Hackley Stadium hosts Muskegon's nationally recognized football program. The program is a perennial contender for post-season play (most recently winning state titles in 2004 and 2006, with perfect records each season) and finished the 2007 season ranked 14th in the state. In 2006, Sports Illustrated ranked the program among the top 25 programs in the country.

But football isn't the only sport thriving at Muskegon, which totals 19 state titles among its varsity sports programs. "We are treating the stadium like any other educational building—it is to be used by all students," Watson says. "While the football program is getting a lot of the attention, the project's mission and goals are directed toward benefiting all Muskegon activities."

The public feedback helped the foundation devise a three-phase construction plan was well as strategize how fundraisers will be used to pay for each phase. Watson says the plan and strategies are currently being used to develop a number of architectural concept plans for public viewing during town hall-type meetings scheduled for September 2008. Each concept plan will include a 3-D model and two to three types of "ready-to-go" fundraisers.

The three main fundraising categories the group is exploring are gifts-in-kind, naming rights/major gift donations, and grass roots fundraising. According to Watson, while the gifts-in-kind will offset construction costs, one significant pre-construction gift-in-kind is already being exercised: The architectural firm of a Muskegon alum is providing its services designing the concept plans, a savings valued at more than $12,000.

Major gift donations include researching grants and low-cost financing options, as well as naming rights for the field, locker rooms, offices, and press boxes; however, not the stadium. Seven grass roots fundraising ideas are under consideration, says Watson, adding, "The purpose of these fundraisers is to make the community feel like this is their stadium."

The first idea includes creating an e-mail campaign and Web site to promote the stadium project and to keep the public informed about the progress of the renovation project. An "Honorary Deed" is the second idea, and it would allow donors to "purchase" a piece of the field and receive a certificate of "ownership".

The third idea has school employees donating a portion of their payroll to the project, while the fourth and fifth ideas involve selling engraved bricks to community members to create a "Pillar of the Community" near the fence area, or having the bricks engraved with personal messages and placed in or around the stadium walkways. Donation-giving levels are the sixth idea, and auction dinners make up the seventh idea.

According to Watson, if all goes according to plan, Phase I of the construction plan would begin in early 2009. This phase involves the total replacement of Hackley Stadium's natural grass field with artificial turf. Phase II would take place that fall or winter and concentrate on upgrading the infrastructure. Phase III includes building amenities, such as the press box and ticket booth.

If the fundraisers do not bring in as much as anticipated to cover project costs for Phase I, Watson says a contingency plan would take effect. This would include significant upgrades to the stadium to make it more compliant and improving the facility's aesthetics, such as replacing old scoreboards and adding video and display message boards. Enacting the contingency plan would allow more time for the foundation to raise money while preventing renovation delays, thus maintaining progress, Watson says.

The Big Reds Athletic Foundation estimates the fundraising to be completed by mid-2011. Watson hopes that when renovation work is complete, the improvements to Hackley stadium will be viewed as the school district's way of passing on Muskegon's history to future generations.

"We respect the fact that future families will use this stadium," he says. "We believe the versatility this stadium will have to offer will provide future students with the same sense of tradition that has lasted for so long in this community and that those students will be able to experience and appreciate this history as we do today."

For more information about the Big Reds Athletic Foundation, please contact Muskegon High School Athletic Director at: is brought to you by a recognized and established name in the school athletics arena, MomentumMedia—publisher of Athletic Management, Coaching Management and Training & Conditioning magazines.