Old-timers sometimes get a little misty when they tell familiar tales about how throngs of cheering high school football fans used to elbow into Memorial Stadium when Columbus and Jordan gathered for their annual war on grass.
Young folks hardly mention these kinds of events occurring anymore and neither do adults, for high school football games in Columbus just don’t mean as much as they once did. There are a lot of theories why people stay away — almost as many as the empty seats you’ll find on a Friday or Saturday night at Kinnett Stadium and McClung-Memorial.
Ignoring this modern reality, the Muscogee County School District is again proposing the construction of an $11 million sports complex for high school sports near the new Spencer High School that opens later this year.
The $56 million school, the football stadium, tennis courts and other adjoining facilities were part of a $192,185,000 Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax that voters approved in 2015.
Collections from that 1 percent tax have been slow to accumulate but school administrators still want to proceed. They are asking the school board to finance $50,000 for preliminary planning.
Most local football games today are played at 6,000-seat Kinnett Stadium, which has been called the busiest high school stadium in the state of Georgia. The few remaining games are played at McClung-Memorial Stadium, capacity 15,000, and the third oldest stadium in the state of Georgia.
Kinnett is owned and operated by the Muscogee County School District. The stadium near Shaw High School and the J.R. Allen Parkway honors the contributions of former school board member John Kinnett, whose family owned Kinnett Dairies. (Remember Kadie the Cow?)
McClung-Memorial is the property of the Columbus Consolidated Government. It honors the casualties of World War I and the public service of former Mayor Pro Tem A.J. McClung, who as a college football player at Tuskegee played on that same field.
Money from a 2009 SPLOST allowed the school district to install an artificial surface at overworked Kinnett in 2014. So following that idea, instead of the MCSD shelling out $11 million for a new stadium, why don’t the two taxing entities come together and make joint improvements on the century-old stadium where generations have played the game?
The recent success of a rejuvenated Garrett Stadium in Phenix City should also inspire Columbus leaders to consider installing turf at revitalized McClung-Memorial Stadium rather than moving toward new construction.
Timing is perfect for stadium restoration for the removal of Booker T. Washington Homes has greatly improved the neighborhood around the stadium complex which is also home to the Columbus Civic Center, the Olympic softball complex, the city ice rink and Golden Park — former home of the city’s minor league baseball teams.
Topping that wish list at the historic stadium where teams from Auburn and Georgia competed from 1916 to 1958, would be the installation of artificial turf. Present field conditions are shameful, even though high school games on the field are limited.
The aging stadium remains the home of the Fountain City Classic — an annual clash between Fort Valley State and Albany State — along with the ageless classic between football teams from Tuskegee and Morehouse.
An investment of around $700,000 in new turf, along with seriously needed improvements in the press box, concession stands, locker rooms and other amenities would be wise for the city and the school system to consider.
A joint venture would be extraordinary, for the city and the school district have seldom worked together on such large projects.
But if the two of them were able to step back and look at this potential partnership they would recognize the payback for both sides.
Unless attendance at local games picks up dramatically at every level, Columbus does not need a third football stadium.
Instead, a partnership between government and schools would mean savings on the purchase of the new turf and there would be generous savings on upkeep and maintenance at McClung-Memorial. The joint effort also would free up money from the cost of building a new high school stadium, which would mean more money for educational purposes.
Bringing the two groups together might not be easy though. A third party might need to arrange the first meeting. Columbus State University might the best organization to get the sides together. The Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce might be another neutral party.
And the time to establish home field advantage is now.