The visitors bleachers at Blankenship Field have been demolished, and the Oak Ridge Schools are scurrying to replace them by the start of the high school football season this fall.
Project bids are being accepted through March 21, although it’s not clear yet who will pay for the new bleachers and other improvements at Jack Armstrong Stadium. The bids could be considered by the Oak Ridge Board of Education on March 24.
The board could also make a funding decision then, School Board Chair Keys Fillauer told Oak Ridge City Council members during a Monday night meeting. There are a range of options that include city funding, school funding, and donations, among others.
Allen Thacker, Oak Ridge Schools maintenance and operations supervisor, has previously said the bleacher replacement project could cost a total of $550,000. The project could also include repairing the Wildcat Crossing stairs on the home side of the field, removing trees behind the visitor bleachers, and adding 20 disabled parking spots to the lower-level city-owned parking lot on Broadway as well as a ramp from that parking lot to the track level of Blankenship Field.
On Thursday, Thacker said some money could be saved by grading the bank under the visitors bleachers rather than moving the concrete retaining wall there now.
Members of a Blankenship Revitalization Committee have attended recent meetings of the City Council and School Board, urging them to work together to pay for the new bleachers. The committee, which is chaired by Athletic Director Mike Mullins, is working on a separate initiative for a more comprehensive revamp of Jack Armstrong Stadium and Blankenship Field. Committee members have said that funding commitments from the city and school officials for the bleachers would send a positive signal to potential stadium donors, including out-of-town alumni.
Supporters have said those renovations could cost several million dollars, and they would be the first major changes at Blankenship Field since 1975.
“We’ve watched it decline, and we haven’t done anything about it for years,” said Joe Gaddis, head coach of the Wildcats football team.
One supporter, Tim Waddell, vice president of the Boosters Club, has started an online petition urging the city and school system to maintain the field and stadium and replace the visitors bleachers. So far, 345 people have signed it.
Supporters have cited the cited the history of the Wildcats football program—including one national championship, eight state championships, and one state runner-up—and the potential economic impact of the bleacher replacement project, including for the restaurants where out-of-town visitors eat.
“I would urge you to step up and fully fund this project,” said Rick Chinn, a member of the revitalization committee. “I want to put the best face on Oak Ridge.”
During a Thursday tour of the stadium, Thacker said the visitor bleachers, before they were removed, had been moving forward toward the field, pulling away from the upper level piers.
He said the stands, temporary structures built in the 1950s, no longer met minimum structural requirements. He pointed out floorboard supports that had rusted through, bleacher nuts that had corroded, and parts of the bleacher-supporting retaining wall that were leaning forward toward the field.
“This whole thing was crumbling underneath,” Thacker said. “It was just a recipe for disaster.”
Inspections had determined that the bleachers were no longer safe for fans, would have cost too much to repair, and should be demolished immediately. The Oak Ridge Board of Education unanimously agreed to demolish them in January. The work was done by Oak Ridge Schools maintenance staff, and it took about two weeks.
The steel and aluminum parts from the bleacher seats and floor boards are being sold to help pay for engineering fees. The recycled materials could raise just under $20,000, and the remainder of the engineering fees could be covered by contingency funds.
The school board agreed in February to hire MBI Architecture for the survey and architectural services for the bleacher replacement project. Thacker said the Knoxville company has been working with the Oak Ridge High School Athletic Department and booster organizations for the past few years to try to produce a long-range improvement plan for the stadium.
The company’s proposed fee for the bleacher project was 5 percent of the proposed cost of $550,000, with a total fee of $27,500, and $10,500 for the needed survey work to start the project.
Under the proposal, the seating capacity of the visitor bleachers will be reduced from 3,400 to 2,000 seats, and the new bleachers will be compliant with the American with Disabilities Act.
The field is owned by the city and maintained by the schools. Thacker said Blankenship is used for 20-25 events per year, including the home football games of Jefferson and Robertsville middle schools and Oak Ridge High School, as well as for Boys Club playoffs and high school graduation.
Thacker said the first three middle school games this fall will probably be played at Ben Martin Track at the high school because of the bleacher construction.