MOUNT VERNON – Justin Sanford had a hard time finding the words last Friday.
As he stood at the podium, facing a physically distanced crowd of some of Knox County’s most influential figures, the Mount Vernon Athletic Director struggled. He rocked back and forth, clutching the podium with both hands, wiping away tears intermittently. He looked down at his prepared notes, then looked up at the crowd, but nothing came out.
GALLERY: Mount Vernon's Energy Fieldhouse
Community leaders gathered on Friday, Sept. 11, 2020 to celebrate the formal opening of Mount Vernon City Schools' Energy Fieldhouse. The 70,000-square-foot facility, which took four years and $8 million to complete, contains four competition courts and a six-lane track. It also includes a state-of-the-art weight room, wrestling room, locker room, athletic training room and community room. The facility was funded entirely through private donations.
“Good job, Justin,” Mount Vernon school board member Steve Thompson told him, breaking the silence. The crowd clapped.
Sanford didn’t need to say anything. What stood behind him – a 70,000-square-foot gem, the product of decades of dreaming, years of hard work and dozens of unprecedented community partnerships – did all the talking.
“It’s a team. I’m not gonna get through this,” Sanford finally managed to say, laughing at himself as he wiped his eyes. He gathered himself and looked outward. “It’s a team. Every one of you.”
Mount Vernon City Schools held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for Energy Fieldhouse on Friday, the ceremonial opening for a project that took roughly four years and $8 million to complete. The field house, which sits between the football stadium and the middle school/high school campus, contains four competition courts and a six-lane track. It also includes a state-of-the-art weight room, wrestling room, locker room, athletic training room and community room.
“It truly is a dream facility ...” Sanford said afterwards. “To be able to train and compete in a facility like this, to have access to it ... I wish I was in high school again.”
According to Mount Vernon Superintendent Bill Seder, the school district had dreamed of building an athletics field house since the 1990s. It was one of the first things mentioned to him after he was hired in 2012.
Seder and the district quickly made the facility a priority. But the road from ‘dream’ to ‘reality’ is long and treacherous. It would take time, persistence, and a little bit of luck to reach the final destination.
The beginning stages
When district officials began discussing the possibility of a field house, an $8 million facility was not what they had in mind.
Sanford, who came to Mount Vernon in 2015, remembers the initial concept. He drew it on a napkin one day, sitting alongside Jacket Boosters president John Nussbaum and treasurer Bob Tiell.
“It was one court, a small wrestling room, and a couple locker rooms,” Sanford recalled fondly.
The district had already completed a full-scale renovation of its football stadium in 2014, adding a new track and turf field. The field house was viewed as the final piece to the puzzle, albeit a big one.
As time passed, Sanford, Tiell and other district leaders continued to ideate. They added pieces to the field house – an additional court or two, a weight room – and proposed the construction of a new bus maintenance garage, which would sit nearby, replacing the aging facility on Harcourt Road. They began discussing possibly extending Yellow Jacket Drive to Cougar Drive, to improve traffic flow around campus.
The district made the project public in January 2018 with a school board resolution. It then began to bid the project out. Only two contractors participated in the bidding process that summer – Adena Corporation, of Mansfield, and Mull & Weithman Architects, Inc., of Columbus. The district chose Adena, led by vice president Dwight Farmer, who grew up in Mount Vernon and graduated from the high school.
Then came a bump in the road.
During a special meeting that September, Seder told the school board that field-house construction would likely cost $2 million more than expected. The district had anticipated paying $3 million for the facility ($2 million from the school board, via state casino funds and pay-to-play revenue, and $1 million from booster funds), but contractor estimates came back closer to $5 million.
Estimates for the bus maintenance garage also came back higher than expected; the district had anticipated a $1.3 million price tag, but estimates neared $2 million. (The price for the Yellow Jacket Drive extension project remained locked-in at $500,000, as it was completed through a partnership with the Ohio Operating Engineers Apprenticeship and Training Center.)
The school board met for four hours that Saturday morning, in September 2018, discussing ways in which it could make up the cost. The district’s soon-to-be financial advisor, David Conley, detailed different revenue options the board could pursue.
It seemed as if this was a fight-or-flight moment for the district. Would it continue to push for this project – particularly its most expensive component, the field house – or would it back off, as so many before had done?
Thompson ended the meeting that day with an impassioned plea – a rallying cry, of sorts – to keep moving.
“I think there’s so much need … there’s so much momentum right now that I think there will be a whole lot of people (who will be) very disappointed if they get any sense that we’re pausing or going back to days gone by of, ‘Well, good talk, but you didn’t do anything’ ...” he told his fellow board members.
"I think we have enough knowledge and information to move forward.”
And move forward, the district did.
A major breakthrough
Two weeks after the special board meeting, Seder and other district leaders met with representatives from the Ariel Corporation and its philanthropic arm, the Ariel Foundation.
Seder recalled Friday sitting in a room with Ariel President Karen Buchwald Wright, Chief Financial Officer David Stuller, and Thompson, who serves as the vice president of Ariel’s supply chain. They discussed the vision for the project and what it would provide Mount Vernon.
“It was just a great conversation,” Seder said. “We walked away from that meeting two hours later even more committed to broaden our vision and to seek out shared opportunities and develop strong, collaborative partnerships.”
Shortly thereafter, Ariel Corporation made a commitment that would change the course of the field house project. It agreed to match booster funds dollar-for-dollar, in an effort to increase donations and elevate the facility’s potential.
Tiell, who spearheaded the booster club’s fundraising efforts, said this commitment felt like a shot in the arm. Fundraising had begun to dry up that fall, and this move gave the project new life.
“The only scary time was when people started losing interest and we had to get the fires stoked again. It was about halfway through. We kept running into walls – you can’t do this, you can’t do that,” Tiell recalled.
“But you know, we finally got to a point where Karen Wright stepped up and made all this possible. We have a lot of donors, but without her backing, this would’ve been a very small facility.”
Two weeks after Ariel pledged its support for the project, the school board formally announced the ‘Education Gateway Project,' which would involve the field house, transportation maintenance garage and Yellow Jacket Drive extension. The board also gave Jacket Boosters permission to begin a public fundraising campaign for the project.
At the meeting that night, Tiell predicted Ariel’s commitment would inspire more individuals to donate, as it would make each dollar stretch farther.
In the coming year, he would be proven correct.
“They were really committed to the project and really wanted to help our donor base stay committed to the project,” Seder said Friday of Ariel. “And that matching piece was such a big piece in our conversations, to really empower our donors to really step up and they would help match.”
The dream grows
Over the winter months, as Jacket Boosters reached new fundraising heights, the vision for the project began to expand. The booster club agreed to fund the construction of a new Yellow Jacket Stadium concession stand, as well as the paving of the once-gravel parking lot, which would be shared by the field house.
One day, Seder got a call from James Smith, the vice president for university relations at Mount Vernon Nazarene University.
“He said, ‘Bill, I hear you’re talking about a field house’...” Seder recalled Friday. “And before you knew it, (Ariel Foundation Executive Director) Jen Odenweller had us all connected.”
MVNU was interested in finding a home for its indoor track program. It was also preparing to build a $2 million soccer and lacrosse stadium, featuring a turf field and expansive seating.
Smith floated a proposal to Seder and the school district: If you add an indoor track to your field house, and you let MVNU use it for home practices and meets, MVNU will allow Mount Vernon City Schools to use its new soccer stadium for the same purposes.
The school district gladly agreed.
In adding a six-lane, 200-meter competition track to the field house, the school district realized it had room to add a fourth court. To do so, however, it would have to move the bus maintenance garage, as both facilities could not sit on the same property.
The school district chose to move the bus garage to a more convenient location, right beside the middle school. MVNU agreed to lease the school district additional property, so that it could build a parking lot for the facility.
Through it all, the school district and university worked with City Engineer Brian Ball to plan each project. Ball helped educational leaders “jump over some of the hurdles” associated with construction, Seder said, such as redesigning or enhancing utility infrastructure.
“We were beginning to have conversations about, ‘How could we share resources?’...” Seder recalled. “Partnerships began to develop all over the place and it was amazing.”
The city, university and school district held a joint meeting in April 2019 to announce a $20 million collaborative effort, titled ‘Access to Opportunity,’ which included Mount Vernon City Schools’ field house, bus maintenance garage and Yellow Jacket Drive extension project; MVNU’s new soccer and lacrosse stadium; and the city’s Mount Vernon Avenue bridge replacement project, which would also connect the Kokosing Gap Trail to MVNU and the city’s downtown district.
Each project would involve all three entities in some way, whether through shared use, funding, or general impact. And each project would be completed over the following year.
Dr. Margie Bennett, the Mount Vernon school board president, called the simultaneous collaboration “historic.” Richard Mavis, who served as Mount Vernon’s mayor for 24 years before retiring this year, said he’d never seen anything like it.
“This is exciting, really. And I think people, when they get a chance to see what’s really happening here, they’ll say, ‘Gee, this is unusual, to see this large of a project come out of three major institutions in a community,’” Mavis said after the April meeting. “The city, the university, the public school system… that’s something.”
From the ground up
Construction on the field house began in June 2019. It was built like a house, Seder said; the foundation came first, then the walls and the roof. Adena Corporation accomplished its goal of completing the exterior before the cold weather came, so it could begin to work indoors during the winter months.
At the same time Adena began building the field house, it was also working on a tight deadline to construct the new stadium entrance. The facility was completed just in time to start the 2019 football season.
That fall, Adena began building the bus maintenance garage, which Seder said is now completed and going through the inspection phase. This project has been funded through tax anticipation notes, allowing the district to pay off construction costs over time.
Yellow Jacket Drive was fully extended and opened to thru-traffic this spring. The district completed paving this summer, after final enhancements were made to the gas line running across the road.
“We still need to provide some wayfair signage, speed limit and school zone signage,” Seder said. The district plans to finish the project next spring, when it adds a sidewalk.
While most of the world shut down this spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Seder said progress on the field house remained largely undeterred. Adena experienced some supply-chain delays early on, but was still able to complete the project in just over a year.
The final cost for the field house came out to around $8 million, Seder said, with Ariel Corporation footing “well over half” of the bill. The rest was funded entirely through private donations, raised by the booster club.
The school district – and local taxpayers – didn’t spend a dime.
“To say that this was done 100-percent privately,” Sanford said, “is just nothing short of amazing.”
Standing at the podium Friday, Sanford couldn’t believe the journey was finally over, that the mission had been accomplished.
He didn’t expect to cry, he said afterwards. But in the end, he couldn’t help it.
“It just kind of all hit me, I think, at once,” Sanford said, gazing around the facility. “I mean, this is just unbelievable.”
An all-star team
Making the field house happen – turning decades of dreams into reality – took an epic amount of community collaboration. While MVNU and the City of Mount Vernon were involved in major aspects of the project, numerous other community partners played critical roles.
Seder, a former football coach, described each partner on Friday as a member of the district’s ‘team.’
“There’s an old saying that goes, ‘Teamwork makes the dream work.’ ... And to accomplish the Education Gateway Project, it was going to require a team of all-stars,” Seder told the crowd. “You’re here today because you’re one of those all-stars.”
At center, snapping the ball on every play, was the school board, Seder said. The guards were the Jacket Boosters, “guarding the dream of a field house.” The tackles – responsible for the dirty work, and essential for getting the job done – were the local contractors Mount Vernon City Schools worked with on the project, led by Adena.
“Dwight Farmer not only acted as a general contractor for Adena, but he was also an advocate for this project and for Mount Vernon City Schools,” Seder told the crowd. “He advocated for us when he didn't have to … This is his home, and it was evident.”
At the tight-end spots were the district’s financial partners: the Knox County Foundation, Park National Bank (formerly First-Knox), and The Peoples Bank.
The wide receivers, Seder noted, are typically the playmakers on any football team. There was no question who played that role in this project.
“The Ariel Corporation and the Ariel Foundation continue to make big plays for Mount Vernon City Schools and our surrounding community,” Seder said. “Thank you for being the big playmakers to get our offense rolling.”
At the running back spots were the city and MVNU. Seder noted that two mayors helped guide this project to completion – Mavis, and then Matt Starr – and he also thanked university leaders, including President Dr. Henry Spaulding and Athletic Director Chip Wilson, for their support.
That left one position open – the quarterback.
One man was working behind the scenes every day, Seder said, making sure this project came to life. He was leading the district down the field, through thick and thin.
That man was standing to his left, walking toward the podium with tears in his eyes.
“Every team needs a great quarterback … It takes that person,” Seder said. “Justin Sanford was the quarterback of this project. And I’ll tell you what, I can't say thank you enough to Justin for all of the effort and hard work that he’s put in.”
When district leaders began discussing the possibility of a field house back in 2015, it was mostly out of necessity.
At that point, Mount Vernon High School only had one competition gymnasium. This limited offseason training opportunities for sports like volleyball and basketball, and it also forced teams to schedule late practices on school nights, just to get gym time.
“We live one season at a time here because of our facilities,” Sanford said in June 2018. “And if you’re going to be competitive, not just in the Ohio Cardinal Conference but throughout central Ohio and in our district, it can’t just be your two-month, in-season time that you get access to the facility.”
Due to limited gym space, Mount Vernon’s wrestlers practiced and held home matches at Pleasant Street Elementary. While the elementary school is rich in wrestling tradition, Sanford said it would be ideal for the team to have a place to compete on-campus.
These were Sanford's original requests – a court, a wrestling room, and maybe a locker room near the stadium. As the vision for the field house grew, however, more and more opportunities began to arise.
Fundraising and community partnerships allowed the district to add a state-of-the-art weight room, an indoor track (including amenities for field competitions), four competition courts (with drop-down batting cages for baseball and softball, as well as tennis and pickleball lines), a community room, a locker room, and an athletic training room.
Sanford said Friday that the current facility exceeds “any of those expectations” that he previously had. He said Mount Vernon’s facilities have likely surpassed those of its conference opponents.
“When we first originally started talking about this concept, we needed one extra gym – one court – so that basketball or volleyball, out-of-season, could get time …” he said with a laugh. “Every sport is gonna be able to utilize this facility, in-season and out-of-season, and we’re still gonna have room.”
With great power, however, comes great responsibility. Mount Vernon’s new facility raises the bar for its sports programs, Sanford said, given the resources now at their disposal.
“Our motto from here on out is gonna be, ‘No excuses,’” Sanford said. “Because you don't have an excuse now. You wanna play basketball? You wanna train prior to a season? We’ve got courts for you, plus the weight room, etc. It’s just a remarkable facility.”
The field house won’t just benefit Mount Vernon student-athletes, however. It will also benefit the community at-large.
The district plans to open up the field house to the public for certain hours of the day, Seder said, so community members can exercise during the winter months. The facility will be able to host club basketball and volleyball tournaments, as well as track meets, which will attract visitors to Mount Vernon from across the region.
“Our hope was, all along, to be able to bring people to Mount Vernon,” Seder said. “So if we have a basketball camp and we can bring people in to stay at hotels and to eat at our restaurants, or a volleyball AAU kind of a tournament, same kind of a thing – we’ll try to invite people and bring them in.”
The field house will also likely play host to gym classes and youth programs, Seder said. It will allow the band to play indoors during inclement weather.
In addition, the school district has partnered with Knox Community Hospital to provide certified weight-training specialists who will work with Mount Vernon student-athletes in the facility. In return, KCH will be allowed to use the facility to enhance some of its programming, Seder said.
Last Friday marked the beginning. After their opening remarks, Seder and Sanford gave those in attendance a tour of the facility, and most came away with the same reaction.
“It’s just incredible,” Tiell said. “It’s a dream come true.”
Later that night, the new wrestling room (which will be used for practices and most home matches, although Sanford said at least one dual each season will be hosted at Pleasant Street) was dedicated to John Brown, the hall-of-fame coach who passed away tragically in 2016, and and John Frye, who took over the program in his wake.
On Monday, the district held a community open house for the facility during the school day. After school, the football and girls soccer teams moved into the locker room, and students began using the weight room. The wrestling team had its first open-mat session at the new facility on Wednesday night. The volleyball team is scheduled to host Olentangy Berlin at the field house on Saturday morning.
“We’re in full-go,” Sanford said with a smile.
Last Friday, however, was a moment to pause. A moment to celebrate. After decades of dreaming, Mount Vernon City Schools finally got it done.
“I’m blessed, we’re all blessed, because you’re a part of our team,” Sanford told the crowd. “This is a small, a small piece of what that team can do, and has done. You are unbelievable.”