SBJ/August 22 - 28, 2005/SBJ In Depth

Facility construction strong

The tiny north Texas town of Graham is as good a place as any to look for evidence of a boom in high school sports construction.

The stadium at East Kentwood (Mich.) High School is one of Southern Bleacher’s projects.
Located about a hundred miles west of Dallas, Graham is home to Southern Bleacher Co., a 60-year-old company with 150 employees that this year will install seating in 200 high school stadiums with an average capacity of about 2,000 people.

Southern Bleacher expects to build another 200 or so stadiums in 2006, and, assuming that voters continue to approve school bond issues, it’s likely that the jobs will keep coming in 2007 and beyond. “We’re incredibly busy,” said company vice president Garrett Pettus.

But neither Pettus nor Jeff Dickinson, one of Southern Bleacher’s six regional salespeople, believes they’re in the middle of a building boom. With more than 27,000 public high schools in the United States, and additional thousands of private schools, there’s no reason to think things will slow down anytime soon, they say.

That goes for both the smaller end of the business, where Southern Bleacher does most of its work, and the higher-profile projects such as the Dallas school district’s new Jesse Owens Memorial Complex, which includes a 12,000-seat stadium and a 7,500-seat field house, all of which will cost about $35 million.

Still, it’s hard to get a handle on just what the market really is for high school construction, both because there are so many schools out there and because of the number of companies that work in the industry.

The average cost of a job done by Southern Bleacher this year will be about $300,000, but most of those jobs are part of a larger project. “There’s a big emphasis this year on a complete athletic complex,” Dickinson said. “The total package of any given project that we’re involved with is going to be in the millions.”

The overall market for the part of the business that Southern Bleacher serves — grandstands and bleachers — is conservatively worth $125 million to $150 million a year, Dickinson said. Add in the rest of what goes into each facility, from infrastructure to playing surface, and the nationwide costs are astronomical.

A third of Hunt Construction Co.’s Texas sports business this year will come from high schools, about $125 million, said John McCutchen, director of business development for the company’s south division. In Florida, it’s half the sports business, about $100 million.

“I can’t vouch for every other state,” McCutchen said, “but in Texas we see no stop to it. Every bond program for every school district includes a new football stadium and a new competition arena and pool.”

On the bigger projects, there’s likely to be an effort to find ways to use facilities for more than just sporting events, which can make a project easier to sell to taxpayers.

“For example, they don’t call them competition gyms anymore,” McCutchen said. “They’ll call them something like multipurpose centers. The older citizens that would potentially defeat a bond issue like the idea that the city can use them for other things.”

See also:
Playing the name game: Examples of high school facilities with naming-rights deals
The Garland school district, a little northeast of Dallas, just finished a $385 million building program that included a 7,000-seat convocation and special events center, a conference center and a ballroom. The district used its new facilities this month to bring together all 7,000 of its employees before the start of the school year. It plans to lease its new facilities to schools and other organizations to help offset the cost of construction and operations.

“The administration there was really forward-thinking,” said Jess Corrigan, director of the educational facilities group for architecture firm HKS Inc. “They wanted a facility that would hold their kids and all their families, but they also wanted to use it for bands, ice shows and other events. The voters passed this bond issue with the expectation that the other uses would generate revenue to offset those bonds.”

But for every project like the Jesse Owens complex, which costs in the tens of millions of dollars, there are probably 20 projects in the $1 million to $4 million range.

Most of those projects are done by local architects and construction companies, and almost all of them are done by companies that bid for the job, two factors that help keep many of the powerhouses of professional and college facility construction from spending much time on high school projects.

“We don’t see a lot of potential there for us,” said Bob White, vice president for marketing at HOK Sport. “The scale of the projects are such that our expertise is not cost-efficient for most school districts.”

Turner Construction Co. has worked on 10 high school sports projects worth about $100 million since 2000, but four of those, including Dallas’ new complex, are being finished this year. Still, that averages out to be only 3 or 4 percent of the company’s total sports volume, said Dale Koger, Turner vice president and general manager. Most of those 10 projects cost less than $10 million, and half were for private schools, which don’t have to adhere to the same rigorous financing regulations as public schools.

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