JOHNSTON — When Strom Thurmond hosts Silver Bluff for its football opener on Aug. 23, even the home crowd might have trouble getting its bearings.
That's because the Edgefield County school is in the midst of a $2.5 million renovation project at the stadium that, among other things, has moved the home stands from the east side of the stadium to the west. The new home stands are also substantially larger than the pre-existing ones.
“We knew we wanted to make this change,” said James Courtney, director of facilities and operations for Edgefield County schools. “The home side has always sat facing the sun, so when you started early games, that presents a problem. We needed to enlarge the capacity.”
Courtney said that the new home side will hold 2,850 spectators. With the 2,100 or so that can sit on the visitors' side, the stadium will be able to hold close to 5,000 people. He added the stadium renovations, which also included a new press box, concession area and restrooms, will be ready for the opener – but the new fieldhouse might not be.
“The stadium part is on track, and the stadium will be ready for Aug. 23,” Courtney said. “The fieldhouse is still, we're not quite sure. The reason is all the wet weather. From day one when we started back in December, we've had nothing but rain on this project.”
He said that the stadium construction had actually progressed enough by the end of the school year that the 2013 graduation was held there. But the roughly 7,000-foot fieldhouse is behind.
Once completed, the fieldhouse – which stands 167 feet wide across the north end zone – will house the football locker rooms for both teams, home meeting rooms, coaches' offices, a medical trainers' room, laundry room and equipment area. It has been constructed completely of masonry with header courses in the outer bricks to match older-style buildings in the area.
“We did some details like that ... that would make it look like it had some age to it,” Courtney said.
From a functionality standpoint, head coach Lee Sawyer was excited about the fieldhouse in particular. He said features like the training room and the equipment room would be vast improvements on their predecessors, and the chance to have lockers for even the junior varsity players was a major plus.
“I think it's going to be perfect,” he said. “Everything that we've kind of lacked is in there.”
The fieldhouse is sitting where the scoreboard was, so a new scoreboard with upgraded sound system will be placed at the south end of the stadium near the concession area on the new visitors' side.
At that end, between the ticket booths, the committee of community members and school employees that spearheaded the project chose to grow Madison jasmine from the inside of the fence. The plants will send vines up the fence and create a fragrant and unique boundary to that side of the stadium, and they've already begun their desired growth.
Another theme for the project exemplified in the fieldhouse is that of a multi-use facility. The meeting room, which can be divided and takes up the center third or so of the building, will have television monitors and can be used for district-wide training throughout the calendar year.
“It'll give us a lot of use out of this facility,” Courtney said.
He said that the expanded size was also done with multiple uses in mind. In addition to hosting larger football crowds for playoff games and bigger regular-0season matchups, the 5,000-seat capacity is necessary to host state band competitions and will also make the stadium ideal for JROTC events.
With the nearby practice fields and staging areas available both at Strom Thurmond and JET Middle School, the improved stadium completes what Courtney thinks is a total package to support those extra-curricular events.
“We think it'll be the perfect set-up to be able to host band competitions,” Courtney said.
The project, and others around the county, were funded through a rule that allows the school system to borrow or bond out up to 8 percent of its total worth, which totaled to roughly $5 million. Because of that, residents of Edgefield County have felt little impact in their personal finances.
“We didn't have to go up a mill, so it actually ... the taxpayer didn't see any increase in what they were already paying,” Courtney said.
And while many of the renovations have been large in scale, Courtney said a great effort was taken to maximize the money being spent. He said the goal was to get as many goals met as possible with the money available.
“It's all about just using our money wisely,” he said.
In addition to avoiding an uncomfortable view and expanding the size of the stadium, another goal was safety and accessibility. The renovation process began when a child fell through the old home bleachers, so ensuring that didn't happen again was one of the first items on the checklist.
After that, creating an easy commute into and around the stadium was another high priority, which was achieved with longer, more accommodating wheelchair ramps and vomitories rising from under the home bleachers.
Those stairwells lead down to a new restroom and concessions seating area underneath the bleachers. Complete with landscaping and brick dust accents, Courtney said the “streetscape,” which will flow seamlessly into booster parking and other parking areas, is meant to have a “classic style” with modern touches like LED lights in the old-fashioned lamp posts.
“We can hang banners, we can hang advertisements, just anything to make it feel like a little city,” he said.
In all, Courtney said the stadium upgrades are meant to be an “image-booster” for the community and students alike, and not just for the athletes.
To add to the community feel, supporters can purchase an engraved brick that is part of a “T” logo in the walkway near the home entrance, with the proceeds going to technology upgrades at all county schools.
Taking the project as a whole, with recent infrastructure adjustments to support future advancements nearby, Courtney was pleased with the direction the county is headed.
“For a rural area, I think we're on top of our game here with this,” he said.
For his part, Sawyer was pleased with the renovation. He said he always knew the final product would be a step in the right direction, but he couldn't foresee just how different his new environment would be.
“Obviously, me and the players and the coaches are excited about it,” he said. “It's beautiful, really.”
Jeremy Timmerman has a journalism degree from Mercer University and has been at the Aiken Standard since June 2010.