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Leading the Charge

A shift in demographics creates a new opportunity for a Wisconsin high school athletic booster club to reconnect to it community, alumni, and fans.

by Danielle Catalano

For 25 years, the Hamilton Athletic Booster Club in Sussex, Wis., had a consistent approach to reaching fans and alumni of Hamilton High School's athletics program. Members steadily fundraised to help supplement the needs of varsity teams while providing scholarship money for college to graduating varsity athletes. The group took little recognition for their hard work, instead focusing on the benefits the high school athletes would receive.



Three years ago, Roxanne Dunlap was elected president of the HABC and rumors of change began to stir in the air amid the noticeable shift in the community's demographics. This mid-size town northwest of Milwaukee doubled its population in just a decade, increasing not only the number of students attending Hamilton and the success of the school's athletics program, but also the wear on academic and sport facilities.



"The school district doesn't have the money to fix everything at once," says Dunlap, now entering her sixth year as a member of the booster club. "But board members reassured parents that anything that was deemed a 'need' would be a priority and receive whatever funding the board could offer. Our recent gym renovation last year, for example, was a 'need,' as the gym was not up to code, and the school district fully funded that project. But other project requests in which student health and safety is not harmed and the facility was functional might not be considered a 'need.' That's when we asked the board if we could get involved with improvements."



Such was the case last fall, when the Chargers football team made its second run in three years to the state playoffs and fan attendance spiked by the thousands. Just as gate receipts soared, so did the need to better coordinate traffic flow and renovate existing restroom areas and the lone concessions stand, which Dunlap describes as a "souped up shed with pizza ovens and counters, off the side of the bleachers."



"Ten years ago, that's all we needed," she says. "But today, it's different. Our food needs have changed and come October when the weather gets cold, we become energy-intensive users—we're constantly blowing fuses. In addition, crowd control, from our perspective, was becoming a safety issue and turning off some fans from wanting to buy concessions—the second biggest revenue generator next to our golf outing. We couldn't have that."



To accommodate the Chargers' growing fan base, the HABC kicked off an $800,000 capital campaign initiative in March called Charging Forward. The campaign focuses on six renovation projects tentatively scheduled for completion in 2011, including a new stadium concession stand, stadium press box/tower, outdoor bleachers, public restrooms, and baseball dugouts.



"We don't want our facilities to be the reason why fans stay home," Dunlap says. "We want a packed house, where people can feel comfortable having fun. Sports is a living part of this community, so we're charging forward with this change, hence our slogan."



CHARGING AHEAD
Before charging forward, the club had to step back and evaluate the plausibility of a successful campaign, Dunlap says. The initiative was discussed for a year among booster club members, Hamilton's athletic director, and the school district's groundskeeping crew, with topics including maintenance, labor, gifts-in-kind, materials, cost-analyses, mobilizing volunteers, and the pros and cons of consolidating renovation work.



Also during this time, the booster club held its elections, which introduced a new question to be answered: Would the booster club be able to fulfill the campaign promise if a new officer was elected and had concerns about raising such a large amount of money?



"We don't want this project to last 10 years," says Dunlap. "So by working with the groundskeeper and athletic director and using the input of our members, we designed an achievable, smaller-scale, three-year plan that would ensure progress no matter who was in charge. As is turned out, all officers were re-elected and the smaller-scale plan was adopted because of its practicality and realistic goals."



The first renovation planned is the concession stand, and is due to be ready by fall 2008. Most of the construction is being completed by booster club volunteers and gifts-in-kind services. The dugouts, press box tower, and restrooms are next on the list. Dunlap says HABC also plans on purchasing new scoreboards, and the new concession stand will make room for bleachers, if the district wants to add them.


SHAPING THE CHARGE FORWARD
With the blueprints approvals set, officers focused on another task: building stronger community relationships by enhancing the public's awareness about the booster club.



"I'll call it a good problem," Dunlap says. "We have a generous business community, but a lot of the community leaders didn't know we supplemented some of the coaches' and teams' needs and provided scholarship money. Businesses wanted to donate toward these fundraising efforts, but didn't know whom to donate to—and with a campaign like Charging Forward, you really need that recognition to succeed."



To change that thinking, the HABC recently created its own Web site, where fundraising news and promotions could be downloaded and information on school sporting events and meetings are easily accessed. Also, for the first time in its history, the club participated in the end-of-the-year senior awards ceremony, presenting four $1,000 scholarship checks to graduating athletes.



"I can't tell you how heart-warming it has been to hear the many thanks from parents and students this year," Dunlap says. "The parents appreciate our efforts and feel comfortable talking to us now. They trust us, and being transparent about where the money is going and to whom it is going is adding to the booster club's integrity."



Dunlap hopes the recognition will influence other parents and community members to become club volunteers. The HABC has 120 volunteers—about one-third of the 350 student-athletes' parents—and the club is looking for more.



"While we would love to have every parent volunteer, that's just not possible. People are busy," Dunlap says. "Parents like being informed and want to know what to do to help their kids, so we know the Web site is working. What we're seeing now is people asking if their few minutes of free time can be of use to us—and I always answer, ‘Yes!'"



Another option under consideration, Dunlap says, is changing the booster club bylaws so that each sport has parent representatives. Coaches currently serve as sport representatives, but during the season, coaches can miss meetings, and any information that needs to be passed along to parents is delayed. A decision on this initiative will not be made until later this summer.



As a final thought on keeping Hamilton's Charging Forward campaign charging ahead, Dunlap says it is the support of the volunteers that have enabled the incremental changes throughout the 2007-08 school to be successful. "Everyone in the booster club is really part of a huge support team, mentally and physically," Dunlap says. "There are days when you get knocked off your horse and go to bed upset. But when you wake up in the morning, you get back on the horse and feel good about what you're doing."



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