Commission exploring upgrades at Unicoi County's Gentry Stadium

Sue Guinn Legg • Mar 8, 2019 at 11:31 PM

ERWIN — Unicoi County commissioners on Friday got a close-up look at structural and safety issues at the high school football stadium that school officials fear have put the county “one bad Friday night away from a lawsuit.”

“It’s not pretty,” Director of Schools John English said in a field house briefing for members of the County Commission’s Building Committee and other commissioners and school board members who came to tour the Blue Devils’ beloved Gentry Stadium.

What the commissioners were about to see was crumbling concrete beneath the stadium seating, soil erosion on the embankment behind the bleachers, the lack of handrails along the steps and what the school’s system’s consulting architect has described as total noncompliance with Americans with Disabilities Act requirements.

Unicoi County High School Principal Chris Bogart told the group, “We’re afraid someone is going to fall.”

The safety concern was not news to at least one member of the committee. Commissioner Matthew Rice told the group he had witnessed people crawling down the stairs to exit the stadium.

English recalled a mid-game downpour last football season that escalated those fears as everyone hurried out of the stands to find shelter. He said that shower also revealed “about 15 leaks” in the roof of the press box.

The committee also toured the Unicoi High School and Middle School track, which English said was about 20 yards short of 400 meters and need of expansion, surfacing, lighting, bleachers and restrooms. English noted the updates would allow the track to host official track and field meets that would stimulate the town’s economy by bringing other teams to Erwin.

In a discussion of updates needed at the high school auditorium, Bogart said stage lighting and sound systems would allow the 1,000-seat auditorium to realize a lot of missed opportunities for concerts and other productions.

English told the committee architect Tony Street has estimated new lighting and sound systems for the auditorium at $250,000. He said the needed repairs and upgrades at the stadium have been roughly estimated at $2 million.

He  said the school board has committed about $4.5 million to capital improvements to school facilities over the past five years, including the recent completion of phase two of a five-phase plan for school roofs where needed.

“When we get that done, facility-wise, we think we’ll be in pretty good shape,” he said. “We are willing to continue that but we are at a place now that can’t continue that without some assistance.”

County Mayor Garland “Bubba” Evely told the group private-public funding partnerships have been utilized successfully for similar projects in neighboring communities and my be possible for the some of the needs in Unicoi County as well.

Commission Chairman Loren Thomas said English will review all the facilities needs at the full commission meeting on March 25 after which the Building and Grounds Committee will meet to formulate a recommendation on how to move forward.

Noting the stadium is in a beautiful location with views of the town, the Veteran’s Memorial and the mountains, English said,” The students deserve this (stadium renovation), and the people deserve it.”

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