Written by Corbett Smith
State-of-art Eagle Stadium rises from recession: How it was funded, built
It seems old-fashioned, a one-school town rallying around its football team every Friday night. Yet, when Allen packs its stands full for its first game on Friday, it will be anything but quaint.
The game will open the Allen school district’s new $59.6 million state-of-the-art football stadium, a facility that would be the envy of most small and midsize colleges.
One of the state’s powerhouse football programs will move into an 18,000-seat stadium with a sunken-bowl design, improved sightlines and amenities for fans, as well as practice facilities for other sports.
The stadium is so impressive, an opposing coach recently joked that Allen might never again see one of its football players sign a scholarship with a small college.
“Whenever those kids go on a visit,” the coach said, “they’ll be disappointed in whatever they’ll see.”
That such a stadium could be financed and built amid a recession serves as testament to the significance of high school football to Allen, and how residents have rallied around an ambitious construction plan.
“The way the community supports our school, and the amount of interest there is in our school, especially on Friday nights — it’ll just give you such pride,” said Bob Curtis, the district’s director of facilities until 2010. “We’re all red, blue and white Eagles.”
While other high school stadiums can seat more people — Mesquite’s Memorial Stadium, for example, can hold 20,000 — Eagle Stadium’s combination of size and grandeur arguably makes it the best in the country.
“The finish-out of the stadium is higher-end, like a small college,” said Christian Herr, an architect for PBK, the project’s designer.
District planners and project architects looked no further than SMU’s Ford Stadium as a template.
The wow factor is in the refinements.
The horseshoe design tries to re-create the cozy feel of the old stadium. With no track ringing the field, designers closed the distance between spectators and players by running the seats right up to the action.
The old venue lacked enough concession stands and restrooms. Now, there are nearly 200 toilets and urinals, and 42 concession lines.
The brick façade matches the pre-existing indoor facility, and the filming deck, between the top of the stands and the press box, has built-in heaters in the ceiling.
Underneath the grandstands, practice space has been made for the wrestling and golf teams, as well as an 11,256-square-foot weight room.
The scoreboard, with a 38-foot-wide high-definition screen, sits perched above a plaza — where Allen’s insignia is inlaid in stone. The plaza will be a staging ground for Allen’s 600-member band, the Escadrille, before halftime shows.
“They’ve thought about every little thing,” Allen football coach Tom Westerberg said.
The stadium’s shine and polish come with a cost.
A $59.6 million stadium could have been tough to justify to taxpayers, especially given the recession.
Even Allen’s then-school board president had a tough time with its cost.
“I’m in sticker shock,” Victoria Sublette told The Dallas Morning News in 2008, after hearing the original cost estimate for the stadium.
Yet, a bond issue of $119 million — which included the stadium, a performing arts center and a district service center — passed in May 2009 with 63 percent approval, fresh on the heels of a $219 million bond for new school construction six months earlier.
The bonds, which raised the district’s debt level to $490 million, were funded by a 7-cent property tax increase and the restructuring of some of the district’s existing debt.
The district has justified the construction on two fronts: Allen’s still-growing economy and public demand.
While the financial downturn slowed Allen’s growth, the district hasn’t lost any taxable value. Other districts such as Plano and McKinney haven’t been as fortunate.
Over the past three years, property values have grown an average of 3.47 percent.
“We’re certainly not over-positioned,” Allen ISD director of finance Mark Tarpley said. “There’s been a lot of growth in Allen, and that’s still happening. We’re still one of the hottest commercial markets in the state.”
The community cry to replace the high school stadium has been constant for more than a decade.
Built in 1976 from bleachers purchased from UT-Arlington, the old stadium originally sat 4,000 fans, and expanded to 7,200 in 1987. An additional 7,000 temporary seats were brought in — at a cost of about $250,000 per year — just to make do. Portable toilets were hauled in (26 at highest count). Auxiliary concessions were built.
The school’s and community’s growth demanded something new. And new, in Allen’s case, meant top of the line.
“Our goal was always to provide the best space there we could,” Curtis said. “If there’s any doubt about what we should do, our motto was always: Let’s do what’s best for the kids.”
Time to upgrade
Curtis, a lifelong resident of Allen, graduated from high school there in 1964, one of 18 in his class.
At that time, the town was a farming community of 640 people. Today, its population exceeds 83,000, and the high school is the second-largest in Texas, with 5,388 students as of the latest UIL alignment.
For administrators, there was no doubt that it was time for a new facility.
“The first question I was asked when I got here in 2001 was, ‘When are we going to get a new stadium?’” Superintendent Ken Helvey said. “All these projects in the last few years, they’ve been the icing on the cake, so to speak. We had to build all those elementaries, junior highs first.”
Allen administrators just waited to push for ancillary items like the stadium and performing arts center until essential items — the construction and renovations of schools — were already funded.
When ground broke on the stadium in 2010, the project captured the interest of national media, including The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. It’s picked up over the last few weeks. Allen’s public information director, Tim Carroll, has been inundated with interview requests from as far away as Canada. Not all of the press has been positive; some question the community’s priorities.
Steve Williams, Allen athletic director, said Texas’ football fervor makes the stadium an easy target. After all, those same outlets have been relatively mute about the $23.2 million performing arts center, which features its own TV studio, a student-run restaurant and a $100,000 Steinway grand piano for its performance hall.
Locally, the stadium always had some critics, but the drumbeat intensified last fall when cuts in state funding prompted the district to call a special election asking for a 13-cent tax increase: Why are we building a lavish stadium at the same time teachers’ jobs are being threatened?
But the funding issues weren’t so simple. The tax increase could only be used for maintenance and operations, which covers day-to-day expenses such as teacher salaries. Debt service, for paying on things like construction loans, is funded separately, and state law prohibits funds intermingling between the two.
Still, to some, such a large expenditure seems unwise in the current economic climate.
“So they can watch their children play football in a stadium like that, the community has impoverished their grandkids’ math classrooms to do so,” North Texas Tea Party co-founder Michael Openshaw said last week.
But Allen administrators have been unapologetic when it comes to the overall price tag.
“I think for what our goals were, and given the community support behind it, it is what we wanted to accomplish,” Helvey said.
Helvey said one of the project’s goals was for it to become a “destination point” for the community, something that could serve as a focus for school-related activities and bring in additional money to both the district and Allen.
The district has already lined up two special events for the next calendar year: the NFL Network’s “Texas vs. the Nation” college all-star game in January, and two showcase high school football games for the 2013 Tom Landry Classic in August.
Karen Cromwell, tourism manager at the Allen Convention and Visitors Bureau, said that although an economic impact study hasn’t been completed, the college all-star game could bring in $700,000 or more to the local economy. UIL playoff games or band competitions could bring in enough fans to fill all of Allen’s existing hotels, she said.
Money generated from ticket sales, special-events parking, stadium rentals and partnerships will go into the district’s general fund.
The district sold partnerships with nine businesses for its “Founding Partners” program, raising $315,000 per season for the next three years. Additional partners have signed on at lesser amounts.
Season ticket sales were originally expanded to 5,000 seats, but demand was so high the district opened five more sections, giving 3,252 more seats to the public. All sold out quickly.
“We knew we’d have interest, but we were overwhelmed with the demand,” Williams said.
On July 16, the first wave of new season ticket holders got to select their seats.
Teresa Marsh, a “band mom” with a French horn player in high school and a drummer in middle school, said she was thrilled to get a chance for a good seat.
Over the past few seasons, she had put her name into the season ticket lottery, but her number was never selected. Only 25 to 30 seats turned over each year, Williams said, forcing those without season tickets to sit in the end zone or on the visitor’s side. For Marsh, that was less than ideal, considering the band plays to the home side.
But this season, Marsh was selected No. 16 in the lottery; she will be sitting close to the 50-yard line.
She left the athletic offices with a smile on her face and tickets in hand.
“We’ve never been able to see the show,” Marsh said. “This will be very exciting.”
ALLEN HIGH TIMELINE
1914: The school has its first graduating class, with eight students.
1962: After decades playing six-man and eight-man football, Allen starts playing 11-man football.
1968: Allen starts a high school band program.
1976: The school opens a new football stadium, which seats 4,000.
1987: The stadium is expanded to seat 7,200; the band wins first place in the UIL state marching contest for the first time.
1992: Allen moves into Class 5A, and goes 27-44-2 in football over the next seven seasons.
1995: A $75.8 million bond issue passes for a new high school and two elementary schools.
1996: A 177-acre plot is purchased by Allen ISD for a new high school and stadium.
1999: A new 498,000-square-foot high school opens.
2000: Allen’s athletic department opens a $6.6 million Activity Center, which includes a 60-yard indoor practice facility for football.
2008: Allen’s football team wins the Class 5A Division I state title, with a 21-14 win over Fort Bend Hightower.
2009: Voters pass a $119 million bond proposal, which includes a $59.6 million stadium.
2010: Ground breaks on construction for the new Eagle Stadium.
2012: Allen hosts defending 5A Division I state champion Southlake Carroll in the stadium opener Friday.