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Money for Memorial Field? Expect a Fierce Debate in State College's 'New Normal'

on April 25, 2011 9:16 AM

If you thought the proposed Memorial Field overhaul was controversial before, well -- watch what happens over the next several weeks.

For better or worse, the State College community has never universally supported spending millions to upgrade the Depression-era stadium at West Nittany Avenue and South Fraser Street.

But now the school district has entered a "new normal," a term favored by former network-news anchor Aaron Brown. Almost inevitably, it seems, a variety of teaching and support positions will be eliminated for the 2011-2012 school year. Programming will be pared. The schools will be at least somewhat diminished.

And the downsizing, as we noted last week, is likely to continue well beyond the immediate future.

Yet, still on the to-do list, there's iconic Memorial Field, appearing increasingly worse for the wear. A small chunk of its decades-old stone masonry -- part of a west-side wall -- disintegrated and fell apart not too long ago, somehow as if to announce to the world:

"Yep. Still here. Still falling down."

The district's tentative plan calls for spending more than $10 million -- over multiple years, as the money is available -- to spiff up the place in phases. The tentative plans call for new bleachers, new walls, new locker rooms, new concession stands, plus more nice stuff.

School-board members have said they'll lean heavily on private fundraising to help pay for the improvements. But the proposed budget for 2011-2012 suggests eliminating the district's full-time private-fundraising specialist. Not sure how all that will work out.

That aside, though, even in a best-case scenario with lots of private money, you can imagine that some property-tax revenue would go into the Memorial Field upgrades.

In this new normal, that's going to stir up a fight -- a bigger fight than what we would've seen in the old normal. I'll put money on it.

Pat Vernon, a retired State High faculty member and former union leader, foreshadowed the likely debate on April 13. During a community discussion about the proposed school budget, he said this about Memorial Field:

"Hire a welder. Hire a mason. Get the kids from the construction-trade program to fix the seats."

People applauded. Vernon went on.

"It can be done. You have a financial emergency. It doesn't mean you run out and spend $14 million on a new stadium."

I heard from another favorite State College faculty member over the weekend. With great sense of irony, he noted that Monday's board-meeting agenda includes possible schematics for a Memorial Field overhaul.

The same agenda outlines potential cuts in athletic offerings for the next school year.

These are odd times for State College. We see vestiges of our old normal -- gorgeous new elementary schools, plans for a beautifully redone Memorial Field -- mixed with the awful realities of our new normal: proposed programming cuts, probable staffing cuts, ambitions that feel -- rightly or not -- increasingly diminished.

Board members are wrestling with the most arduous, emotional discussions our schools have seen since the State High-expansion debate a few years back. However these heated conversations unfold, the impacts of their decisions will be profound, and felt for years.

I have no solutions, no certain and precise advice. But this much is clear:

The right choices will hurt, no matter what they are.

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