City school board worried about cost of ETSU's sports plans

Nathan Baker • Feb 4, 2014 at 9:08 AM

East Tennessee State University is clearly interested in hosting its athletic teams at Johnson City Schools’ sports facilities next year, but school board members are still looking to get contracts in place to keep the district from footing the bill.

At the board’s regular meeting Monday, Supervisor of Instruction and Facilities Dave Chupa and Board of Education Chairwoman Kathy Hall said the university is already scheduling dates for the Bucs men’s basketball team to play all of its home conference games at Freedom Hall, an extension of an experiment that started this year with three games.

“My understanding is that they have already set aside dates that they have blocked off in order to be able to use that facility for the basketball program,” Chupa said, referencing a January meeting with representatives from the school district, ETSU and the city. “They all had a very positive feeling from the fans, athletes, coaches, administration, toward their endeavor that they had this year, so all indications to us are that they will be planning to play there next year.”

BOE and Freedom Hall Committee member Thomas Hager said he was told by university officials that representatives of the Southern Conference, which ETSU will rejoin next year, preferred the city-owned Freedom Hall over the college’s Mountain States Health Alliance Athletic Center, know commonly as the Minidome, for the team’s home basketball venue.

Chupa said Johnson City and ETSU are in discussions to set fees for the use of the facility, but utility expenses are not included.

With Freedom Hall and Liberty Bell Middle School tied to the same electric meter, board member Richard Manahan said he’s worried that the district will end up paying the expensive bills for the Bucs’ home games.

“All those schools that we have need that funding. It’s probably more important in the next few years than the current year,” Manahan said. “If we’re going to add increased costs to utilities, of which we’re not even having benefit from — and I don’t mean that negatively to ETSU at all — my main concern is our operating budgets and any increased cost to those utilities.”

Board members also noted that ETSU’s rebooted football team has announced plans to play an unofficial practice season in 2014 at Science Hill High School’s Kermit Tipton Stadium without an official agreement with the school board.

Chupa said the college definitely plans to use the high school stadium in 2015, but with a site yet to be chosen for a football venue on campus, the team may need to use Kermit Tipton for even longer.

“The question that couldn’t be answered is ‘What is the timetable for a stadium at the university?’ ” he said. “I think if anybody looks at the logic of things, it’s pretty unlikely that it’s going to be completed and ready by the time football starts, so most likely they will be using Kermit Tipton Stadium.”

Johnson City is still trying to find the funding to complete a $2 million field house upgrade project at the stadium more than three years after it was built.

The project has seen some movement lately from the City Commission and local architects, but if the construction isn’t finished, the college team will not have a place to store or change into its gear, school officials said.

Hall said in recent months, the city and college, both of which were remaining quiet concerning the use of the sports facilities, have begun to share information with the school district, giving hope that the board will be included in discussions in the future.

“Now we’re getting down to the nitty-gritty,” Hager said. “ETSU wants to use the building, they want to use the stadium? Well let’s see some contracts and what we’re actually talking about here.”

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