MOUNT VERNON – On a warm and sunny Saturday morning in mid-September, Mount Vernon City Schools Superintendent Bill Seder told his school board the unsettling news: bids for its field house project, the one that had been in the works for over a year, had come in $2 million higher than expected.
The district had originally estimated the facility would cost $3 million, but unexpected administrative fees and market factors drove the price up to nearly $5 million. Only two construction firms placed bids on the project.
The board spent that morning asking questions and thinking through ways to finance the project. The mood was not apprehensive, but not exceedingly confident either. This was an unexpected setback, one that challenged the momentum the district had built to that point.
This project had been an ‘idea’ within the district since the 1990s, but nothing more than that. It had started, and stopped, and started again. Who’s to say things would be different this time around?
Within the last six months, that question has been answered.
Behind extensive district planning and a community fundraising effort, plans are finally coming to fruition on Yellow Jacket Drive. What was once simply a three-part project, comprising of the athletics field house, transportation maintenance garage and Yellow Jacket Drive extension, has morphed into an effort involving three community institutions and more than $10 million in funding.
Seder told Knox Pages Friday, exactly six months after the Sept. 15 school board meeting, that construction on the field house and transportation maintenance garage will begin within the next month. The goal is to have both projects completed by spring 2020.
The Yellow Jacket Drive extension project will be completed within that time frame as well. Before that, a new concession stand will be built outside of Yellow Jacket Stadium. The parking lot, currently gravel, will be paved and striped.
“It has all shaped rather quickly, and yet it’s gone slow enough that we’ve been able to dot the I’s and cross the T’s,” Seder said of the Education Gateway Project, which was formally introduced to the public in October. “We’re just excited that it’s all coming to fruition and we can get started.”
How it all came together
The final design for the athletics field house is a substantial upgrade from what was originally planned.
When the district put the project out to bid last summer, it included two courts (with the possibility for a third, if it fell within the district’s price range), a wrestling room, a weight room, locker rooms and offices. The estimated cost was $3 million.
When construction bids came back high for both the two and three-court options, the district decided to go with three courts because it would not be possible to add a third court in the future due to the facility’s layout. At that point, the district was looking at a maximum cost of nearly $5 million.
The original plan was to have the district fund two-thirds of the field house's construction through casino funds and pay-to-play revenue. The district’s athletics booster club, Jacket Boosters, would foot one-third of the bill. That changed as the project began to gain momentum last fall.
Two weeks after the Sept. 15 meeting, Ariel Corporation agreed to match booster funds dollar-for-dollar in order to support the project. Seder called the pledge “quite a gift” at the Oct. 15 board meeting, where he and the district officially introduced the ‘Education Gateway Project,’ which would involve the field house, transportation maintenance garage and Yellow Jacket Drive extension.
The board passed a resolution at the October meeting to allow Jacket Boosters to begin a public fundraising campaign for the project, and the boosters got busy. According to Seder, the club had already raised $1.5 million by the time design proposals were first passed around at a board meeting last July; behind district and community support, those fundraising efforts took off over the winter months.
Seder said Friday that Jacket Boosters will now be able to fund 100 percent of the field house's construction, through private donations and fundraising efforts. What was once intended to be a multi-million dollar district investment will now be cost-free. The district will not have to spend a dollar.
“We are absolutely blessed in this community in terms of the support for the schools and the athletic programs. I mean, it’s been a team effort,” Mount Vernon Activities Director Justin Sanford said. “Our fundraising goal, where we are today, has vastly exceeded the expectations from where we were two years ago.”
Sanford, who has worked hand-in-hand with Seder, the board and the booster club on the project, praised Jacket Boosters Treasurer Bob Tiell for his efforts. He said the district has “a core group of about 8-10 individuals” that have guided the district during the process.
“We are extremely blessed in this community for the support,” Sanford said.
As booster fundraising efforts have surpassed expectations, plans for the field house have changed. In addition to the three multi-purpose courts, two locker rooms, weight room, wrestling room, drop-down batting cages, restrooms, offices and athletic training room, the facility – which will sit in the grassy lot next to Yellow Jacket Stadium, across from the high school – will now also house a 200-meter indoor track.
This grew out of discussions with Mount Vernon Nazarene University, which has been in communication with the school district since the project’s inception.
MVNU plans to build a $2 million soccer and lacrosse stadium in the near future. It will include a turf field, lights, expanded seating, restrooms, concessions, locker rooms and a press box.
Seder said Mount Vernon City Schools and MVNU recently reached an agreement; MVNU will allow Mount Vernon's soccer program to use the new stadium as its home field, and the school district will allow MVNU to use the indoor track as its home facility.
MVNU does not currently have a full, 200-meter indoor track on-campus, and using the field house would allow the Cougars to host home meets. Seder said the facility will be able to host field competitions as well, such as high jump and pole vault.
In return, the Yellow Jackets’ soccer program will be able to call MVNU’s sterling new stadium ‘home.’
“To see it grow to where we could collaborate with Mount Vernon Nazarene, that’s been incredible,” Seder said.
Adding a full-length indoor track increased field house construction costs to $6.5 million, all of which will be paid for through booster funds. Like the rest of the facility, the track will be open to the public during hours when teams are not practicing.
“It’s an avenue to serve the students, and community as well,” Seder said of the facility. “They’re certainly looking for a place to play in inclement weather. We’re really trying to foster this as a community kind of endeavor.”
Through fundraising successes, the booster club was able to take on other athletics-related projects as well. The boosters will finance the construction of a new stadium concession stand, which could cost up to $500,000. The district had long desired to replace the 41-year-old facility, which also houses the stadium’s restrooms and serves as its entryway. The new concession stand will be “almost twice as big” as the old one, Sanford said last week.
The booster club will also fund the paving of the stadium parking lot. The lot is currently gravel, but the boosters viewed it essential to upgrade the space, given its proximity to the new stadium entrance and field house.
Because the booster club plans to take care of the field house, concession stand and parking lot, the district can now focus on funding just the transportation maintenance garage and Yellow Jacket Drive extension. This will ultimately leave more money for future district projects, Seder said, which can encompass anything from school improvements to funding for the arts.
“I think our community will soon see that we have desires to improve in all of those areas,” Seder said. “We’re just thankful that we have an athletics booster club and, in this case, a lot of community donors and support, to move this forward.”
Seder said the transportation maintenance garage will cost $2 million, and it will be funded solely through district money. The district plans to pay via tax anticipation notes, which will allow the construction to be paid off over time through casino revenue and permanent improvement funds.
A tax anticipation note works like a loan, Seder said. The district has stretched the anticipation note out to 10 years in order to stay fiscally responsible, but Seder said the district is “optimistic” it may be able to pay the loan off earlier through donor dollars.
Extending Yellow Jacket Drive to Cougar Drive will cost $500,000, Seder said. This will be funded “primarily through the district,” Seder said, although he added that the district “will certainly partner with MVNU as the roadway extension is actually going to be on their property.”
That price covers only supplies, gas and things of that nature. Seder said Tiell was able to coordinate a meeting between the school district, Kokosing Construction and the Ohio Operating Engineers Apprenticeship and Training Center last year, where the Ohio Operating Engineers agreed to take on Yellow Jacket Drive as their annual apprenticeship project.
This means the organization will provide the labor and equipment free-of-charge, as the project will be used as work experience for apprentice engineers.
“That was just a blessing,” Seder said Friday.
Extending Yellow Jacket Drive will involve not only the district, but also the City of Mount Vernon. The city plans to add water lines along that corridor which would “be more adequate to address high school and middle school needs,” Seder said.
The lines will also extend to the transportation maintenance garage, field house, concession stand, and MVNU’s new stadium. Seder said the current water line “has been undersized” and this period of construction will allow the city to take the opportunity to put a bigger line in.
The city is also working on several other projects in the Yellow Jacket Drive/Cougar Drive area, including a bridge project. Those will be completed during the same time span.
Seder said the school district is currently meeting “almost weekly” with MVNU and city officials to discuss the project. The frequency of those discussions will only increase as construction begins.
“We’ve got a lot happening there,” Seder said, “and it’s exciting to see.”
How this will all unfold
On Tuesday, construction began on the Yellow Jacket Stadium concession stand. An excavator chomped into the shingle roof and split its wooden beams one by one. By the end of the week, the structure was gone. According to Seder, the concession stand will serve as the first domino in what will likely be a years’ worth of construction along Yellow Jacket Drive.
Seder said trucks will begin to populate the stadium’s gravel parking lot “within the next couple weeks.” Adena Corporation construction crews will begin to prepare for the construction of the field house and transportation maintenance garage during that time.
On April 10, there will be a joint meeting at Twin Oak Elementary between Mount Vernon City Schools officials, city council and MVNU administration. Representatives will share their final project renderings and discuss the path forward as summer approaches.
The official groundbreaking ceremony for the field house and bus garage will be held after that meeting, Seder said (the date has not yet been announced). The goal is to have both projects completed by spring 2020.
Adena will build the new concession stand, field house and bus garage. All three projects will take place this summer, although the goal is to have the concession stand finished by the start of the 2019 school year. By that point, three-quarters of the parking lot will be paved and striped, Sanford said.
The remaining one-quarter will be used to house any construction equipment that remains, to be used on the field house/bus garage projects; it will be paved after the completion of those projects.
Seder said the district has had to move all of its home track meets this spring due to construction, although practices are still being held at the stadium. The school will once again be able to host home events at Yellow Jacket Stadium next school year, after the entryway projects are completed.
Yellow Jacket Drive will be worked on throughout the summer, although the extended portion will not need to be complete until the field house and bus garage are done, Seder said. A temporary road will be put in for construction and maintenance vehicles to use during the building process.
When school starts next fall, construction on the field house and bus garage will still be underway. Seder said the district has had “considerable conversations” about how best to keep students and staff safe during that time. The district will place fences along the stadium entrance and parking lot, and pick-up and drop-off procedures will continue as normal.
“There will be fencing and quartering off of the areas where construction is,” Seder assured.
By spring 2020, if all goes according to plan, Yellow Jacket Drive will extend to Cougar Drive, providing a fluid thoroughfare for students and community members. Those who enter from Division St. will first see a brand new concession stand on the left, serving as the main entrance to Yellow Jacket Stadium, which received substantial upgrades just five years ago.
There will be a freshly paved asphalt parking lot, followed by a 50,000-square-foot field house and a spacious transportation maintenance garage, which will house all of the district’s buses.
All of the new buildings – the field house, bus garage and concession stand – will match in architecture and style, Sanford said, creating a connected feel for the community.
Mount Vernon City Schools plans on hiring local contractors whenever possible to complete the Education Gateway Project. While Adena is based out of Mansfield, its vice president, Dwight Farmer, is a Mount Vernon grad. The district plans on hiring the likes of Stafford Plumbing, Small’s Sand & Gravel, Bebout Masonry, and Complete Comfort (HVAC) – all based in Knox County – to provide utilities. Settle Muter will provide the electricity; though it is based in Columbus, service manager Mike Hyde is a Mount Vernon parent and community member.
“Everybody’s going to have a hand in it, in the major construction piece,” Sanford said. “(They) all have ties to the community. And to us, that was a critical component of this project. One, it’s just a sense-of-pride thing because they’re here and they’re living in the community. But then at the same time, it’s keeping money in our community.”
Just as it took a community-wide effort to make the Education Gateway Project a reality, district officials believe the endeavor will have a community-wide impact. The field house will be accessible to the public, providing a place for community members to exercise during the winter months. Extending Yellow Jacket Drive will make the school campus safer and provide a fluid thoroughfare for traffic.
After nearly three decades of dreaming – starting, then stopping, then starting again – plans are finally falling into place for Mount Vernon City Schools. And if all goes according to plan, Seder said, the Education Gateway Project will soon come to life.