Winston-Salem State University’s effort to buy Bowman Gray Stadium from the city was snuffed out today when state lawmakers killed the university’s request for permission to borrow $7.5 million to buy the stadium.
The legislative move – sponsored by Sen. Don East, R-Surry, and pushed by Winston-Salem entrepreneur Harold Day – opens the door wider to another potential bidder: Richard Childress, the NASCAR icon from Winston-Salem who sold peanuts as a child at Bowman Gray and started his racing career there in the 1950s.
Bill Patterson, an executive vice president at Richard Childress Racing, met with Martha Wheelock, an assistant city manager, recently to talk about costs related to the stadium, he said. Bowman Gray has sentimental value for Childress. It’s a landmark stock-car racing stadium and more could be done with it, Patterson said, though he declined to provide further information about what else could be done.
“We do have an interest in it,” he said.
Day, who attended the meeting with Patterson and Wheelock, said he lobbied to have the university’s request pulled, asking business associates in as many as 12 counties to call their state representatives and senators.
“I think we’ve done it,” Day said. “We got enough calls in.”
Selling the stadium to someone such as Childress would preserve the stadium’s status as a landmark venue in the history of stock-car racing, he said.
“I’ve been going to Bowman Gray since I was a kid. It’s one of the few places in the country where a man can take his family, spend $10, and spend four hours having a good time and be home by midnight,” Day said, referring to the spring and summer stock-car races.
Efforts to contact East about his amendment striking Winston-Salem State’s request were unsuccessful because he was in session meetings. Rep. Dale Folwell, R-Forsyth, was also in meetings, but in interviews this week he said that he opposed the university’s request.
Officials at Winston-Salem State University were in disbelief that their request for permission to borrow money, which they say would have been paid back by raising student fees, was denied in the Senate.
University officials said that they tried earnestly to address any concerns raised — one of them being that the racing schedule would somehow be affected by a change in ownership from the city to WSSU. University officials have said they would have honored the long-term lease already in effect related to racing.
“We are still not sure what the issues were that created such a controversy since we had agreed to all of what we were told were the sticking points with the other lessee. We will, however, continue to discuss what steps we can take to ensure the best outcome for our students and for this university,” Chancellor Donald Reaves said in an email.
Winston-Salem State’s ties to Bowman Gray Stadium go back to the 1940s.
The university campus is a block from the stadium, making it convenient for students to attend games. That has created a decided home-field advantage, especially during the past two seasons, when the combined 9-2 at Bowman Gray and 21-3 overall.
Athletics Director Bill Hayes of WSSU also has a long history with Bowman Gray. He was WSSU’s head football coach from 1976 to 1987.
“It’s home,” Hayes said of what the stadium means to the school. “That’s all there really is to say.”
Current Coach Connell Maynor, who played one season at quarterback for the Rams in the late 1980s before transferring, said that WSSU has one of the best atmospheres in the CIAA because of the support from students, alumni and fans.
Bowman Gray “is a tough place for visiting teams to get a win,” Maynor said. “The atmosphere is electric, and it has been as far back as when I was playing here.”
Vic Johnson, 77, the vice president of WSSU’s board of trustees, said that the university has played home games at Bowman Gray since the football program was started. And the high schools in the area played there, said Johnson, who also played football for the Rams from 1957 to 1961.
Johnson said that Bowman Gray Stadium is a part of WSSU even though the school has never owned it. (Most major state universities own their own football stadium.)
“That stadium is part of our history in so many ways,” he said.
The historically black university had asked the state for permission to borrow $7.5 million, a loan that the university had planned to repay by raising student fees by $110.
Now that the request has died in the Senate, the university could try to have the state House put the request back into the corresponding House bill, but that is unlikely to succeed since it was just killed in the Senate. In all likelihood, school officials said, the university could try again during the long session of the General Assembly in January – if the stadium is still available at that time.
The stadium is owned by the city of Winston-Salem. For years, members of the Winston-Salem City Council have been trying to reduce overall costs by selling some of its property, including Bowman Gray.
The stadium opened in 1937. In 1954, it was expanded to its current seating capacity of 17,000, according to the city. The stadium site has 42 acres, including 690 paved parking spaces. Civitan Park and three other tracts of land related to the stadium used for parking hold an additional 50 acres, according to the city.
Direct expenses related to Bowman Gray Stadium have led to a net loss in four of the past five fiscal years. But a comparatively good year – fiscal 2009-10 – lifted the average annual net cost over the five-year period to $6,600, according to Wheelock, the assistant city manager.
That number includes a net profit of as much as $68,896 in fiscal 2009-10 and a net loss of as much as $59,646 in fiscal 2007-08. However, that number does not include the city’s indirect expenses, such as the general management positions for the city’s overall public facilities, or payments on debt related to Bowman Gray Stadium.
Over the next five years, the debt payments are expected to average $334,000 annually.
Selling the stadium would save the city over the next five years a total of nearly $1.7 million in debt payments alone – not counting the average annual net direct cost of $6,600 or the general management positions.
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