I am a conceptual supporter of purchasing Bryant Stadium from the City of Lakeland. I think it is likely the best overall option for the Polk district, the city of Lakeland (as a community), and for Lakeland High School's overall athletics program, which I consider an important educational and community function.
I think of athletics as an engagement tool. I liken athletics to like art, FFA, ROTC, band, and so many other educational functions that don't produce test scores -- but do produce memories, experience, and character development. There's a reason many elite prep/private schools require all their kids to play a sport at some level. There is real educational value in teaming and competition, when properly modulated and governed.
But if you made me vote tomorrow, I couldn't support this deal. I still have too many questions; and I don't think we've had an adequate public discussion yet. I blame myself, not my staff, for that. I'll explain why below. And I am pleased that Bryant Stadium is the first topic we're going to discuss at the work session a week from Tuesday, July 25th. I asked for this last week; but staff may have had this in mind to do anyway.
The terms of the deal, as I understand them, seem reasonable. Two $600,000 payments ($1.2 million) for that property seems more than fair on the surface. We would also get the cell tower revenue, although I'm not certain what that is. Indeed, I think we have not had a precise enough accounting of the cost-benefit of buying the stadium (maintenance v. revenue, etc.) I want to see that.
But even more importantly, I think we have put the specifics of the deal before the problem of Bryant Stadium's future -- and the future of field and stadium-based athletics and marching band for Lakeland High. I feel pretty certain that whatever we decide to do with Bryant Stadium, the people who are unhappy with the outcome will object to it far more intensely than the people who support it will cheer. Politically, this is a no-win situation. If I'm going to do something that will displease just about everybody, I at least want to make a decision that addresses the key underlying issues. I'm not comfortable on that yet. Maybe I can get comfortable on Tuesday; maybe I can't. But I intend to make the decision I find the most beneficial to the most kids over the longest period of time. I also know there will be no real way to test if that judgement is correct.
That's why we elect our politicians, in theory: to make difficult decisions and face public consequences for them. So let's walk through this multi-layered onion of an issue together...
Here's what I think I know about the Bryant Stadium issue, in no particular order:
Four non-profit/government institutions have a legitimate interest in what happens to that property. They are:
Lakeland city government: Owns the stadium complex and wants to sell it.
The Polk School District: Lakeland High, in multiple sports and band, is the prime current tenant for Bryant Stadium. Lakeland High football is a unique community/educational institution. I say that recognizing some of the legitimate criticisms of football's role in education. And I also acknowledge that the future of youth tackle football as a whole is unclear, given the concussion and injury issues. (I'm a longtime FSU football fan, who broke my femur as a 9th grade quarterback, FWIW.) And the stadium also offers Polk County opportunities to host events that could help offset costs for athletics as a whole in the county.
Florida Southern College:Recently purchased Henley baseball field right next to Bryant, where both FSC and LHS baseball varsity play. LHS athletics will begin paying a rental fee this season, I'm told. FSC would like the football field for practice space for multiple field sports.
Lakeland Regional Health: Surrounds the Bryant-Henley complex. The growth of the hospital complex and the medical corridor that surrounds it is inexorable. The population is getting older. The percentage of national and community resources spent on health care is going to grow because the needs are going to grow. I think we can expect that LRH will have expansion needs and capital to meet them in the next 10-20 years.
There's also the community interest of the neighborhoods surrounding the stadium, which hosts a number of community events -- youth football, church yard sales, etc.
I can see nothing sinister about any of these interests. But they're not all easily compatible. I also think these institutions are quite capable of talking to each other productively -- and have been doing that out of the public eye. I think we should move more into the public eye.
-- Unlike virtually every other high school in Polk county, Lakeland High School does not own an on-campus stadium to accommodate football, soccer, and lacrosse (at the varsity and junior varsity levels, for girls and boys). That means, unlike any other school, LHS has to fund rental fees and transportation costs to home games. It is my understanding this is paid directly out of LHS ticket sales/athletics revenue. LHS football provides most of this revenue.
I don't expect anyone to feel sorry for LHS athletics. Bryant Stadium is a very cool, tradition-rich facility. The city of Lakeland does a nice job maintaining it with the help of LHS and LHS boosters. But it's not a particularly beneficial economic arrangement, as I understand it. I think it puts strain on LHS athletics and has led to tension between football and other sports. People who think LHS boosters can buy and maintain Bryant Stadium or some other stadium vastly overestimate the money and power that even top-level high school sports create. (Full disclosure: My son will attend Lakeland High next year as a 9th grader. He's an aspiring athlete. But it's highly unlikely that he will play any of the Bryant Stadium sports. Baseball and basketball are his thing.)
-- The City of Lakeland no longer wants to own and maintain Bryant Stadium. The City Commission, as I understand it, is essentially unanimous in that feeling. I'm not entirely sure why. I want to know that, though. In fact, that's my single most pressing question.
-- The choices for the district appear to be: buy Bryant Stadium and keep the Lakeland High experience at the stadium essentially unchanged, with the possible exception of branding changes, and ease the cost pressure on LHS; work out a deal with FSC, if it buys the stadium, to continue leasing the stadium while deferring to FSC's needs; or build a new stadium on or near the LHS campus at significantly greater cost than two $600,000 payments. As I understand it, Teneroc High's rather unremarkable stadium cost about $4 million.
-- It's always possible that the city can't work out a deal with anyone, in which case the status quo might be be an option. But that's not an option I can control. So it's not really an option I can consider.
-- This is a capital expenditure, not one that comes from money we can use for personnel. We have some capital money to spend. Not nearly enough to cover all of our needs -- but some. For instance, we're funding major master plan project for Bartow High School, which is the last of the county high schools to get such an update from sales tax money. I do not think the Bryant Stadium purchase has been budgeted as part of our capital spending plan. So yes, it's likely leaping ahead of other projects as a priority. Buying Bryant Stadium now reduces by $1.2 million the amount of money we can open on other projects over the next two years. No one should doubt that. These are the choices that public officials -- elected and staff -- have to make. And we have to face the consequences for them.
If any of these understandings are incorrect, I expect district staff and the public to correct me.
Here's what I know that I don't know
What are the ongoing maintenance costs versus the available revenues? Are the maintenance costs for Bryant Stadium greater than for an on-campus stadium? Are the revenues greater? As I said, it's my understanding that the deal would include the revenues from the cell tower at the stadium and from use for things like Pop Warner football. I know that John Small, who has been the district's point person on this issue, thinks the stadium can essentially pay for itself through user fees and other revenues.
How much do we pay the city today, precisely, for use of Bryant Stadium? Where, precisely, does that money come from? Is it entirely LHS athletics, as I understand it to be?
What is the status of the expensive artificial turf field that the city owns? When will that need to be replaced? What's the cost? Who pays? I think some parts of it are being repaired right now under a warranty that will go away in a couple years.
Cultural ownership and branding
What are the accommodations that FSC is willing to make, assuming it even buys the stadium if we don't? I suspect it would not be able to fully meet Lakeland High's needs. By definition, LHS would become a secondary tenant. And that leads to the question of cultural "ownership" of the facility. One oddity I've recently learned: the LHS branding is sewn into the artificial turf field, not painted. It is, apparently, prohibitively difficult to change paint on a regular basis.
It may seem like a small thing, but what is the future of the LHS branding on the field? I wager that's a far more fraught question than one would think. It's doubtful that FSC would keep the end zones and midfield orange and black. And what happens to the branding if Bryant becomes a district-owned field? Would the Lakeland High community have to surrender cultural "ownership" of the facility? I think that's an important question that goes beyond simple dollars and cents. Schools have traditions and cultures. Sports/band are part of that.
What community uses -- Pop Warner, etc. -- is FSC, or any other owner, willing/able to allow?
What are the hospital's intentions?
And finally, can we expect Lakeland Regional Health to make a move on this property some time in the next 10-15 years. Does the hospital want it? If it does, that's fine. I'd like to know. Let's think about the complications/opportunities involved in that. Is there some consortium we can form amongst all four organizations?
Where Billy has failed in this issue
Bryant Stadium deal talks have been an open secret for a year at least. I heard rumblings about it during the campaign.
As a board member, I've been involved in two extremely brief, high-level discussions about Bryant Stadium. The first happened a couple months ago. John Small briefly discussed the parameters of the purchase issue with me privately, in a "one-on-one" meeting. I indicated conceptual support of the deal at the time. I should have pushed more on the details. I believe he had identical meetings with all the other board members; but I don't know the timing.
Not long after that, we had a very, very short discussion as a board at the end of a long work session. Here is the clip. It starts at 2:24:45.
In an ideal world, I would have forced a deep board discussion right there and then. Or made it clear that I can't support the purchase until we've had a deep dive public discussion on the issue of Bryant Stadium. But sometimes, I don't think fast enough. And I always assumed, I suppose, that we'd get to a deeper discussion. Thankfully, that seems to be coming next week. I also gave a supportive quote to The Ledger, built around the narrow idea that buying Bryant is a better option than building a new stadium. My thinking has widened since then.
But given the signals I gave them, it's perfectly legitimate for Small and staff to have moved forward in the way they did. But now I want to slow things down a little. I take full responsibility for it.
I've heard a number of complaints from people in other regions and areas who perceive Lakeland High as something of a goliath that gets what it wants. There's a perception that we're taking $1.2 million away from the classroom to buy a stadium for a rich football program. I don't think either of those are true.
But it doesn't change the resonance of this sentiment:
I'm just picturing the 2005 edition World History books I have in my classroom that are all falling apart
A East Polk-based teacher sent me that note. And I've heard many similar thoughts from people inside and outside the district. They're not wrong to feel that way. Governing is choosing. All I can say in response is that the athletic field is a classroom -- just like the auditorium and the drill ground and the garden.
If Davenport School of the Arts was suddenly in jeopardy of losing its auditorium -- and thus losing the ability to put on Aladdin for the community -- I'd consider it an important capital priority to retain it. This is how I think of the Bryant Stadium issue. And I'm grateful to the public for pushing me to come to a more deeply reasoned decision.