Long-term plans needed for dealing with aging stadiums

Last week’s Aberdeen School Board decision to tear down Stewart Field’s south grandstand roof and press box due to safety concerns means different things to different people.

For Aberdeen high football and soccer fans, it will mean at least temporary inconvenience. For members of the media and game-day staffers, it means the loss of one of the best press boxes in the area.

But for area school districts and taxpayers, it’s a shot across the bow on the importance of maintaining and upgrading sporting infrastructure.

Make that the latest shot across the bow. When the prep football season opens next month, four Grays Harbor teams will be playing in stadiums without covered grandstands in at least a portion of the facility.

After two years of staging home games in Montesano, Aberdeen and Hoquiam, Elma will be returning to Davis Field for football — although the grandstand demolished in 2013 has yet to be replaced. Uncovered bleachers have been installed.

Ocosta will be entering a second season without an enclosed grandstand. Taholah has never had one.

The number would be five had not the Wishkah portion of its football combine with Lake Quinault been discontinued (the Elks are scheduled to compete as a separate entity). Wishkah’s Addison Field has been without a grandstand for several years.

Aberdeen fans are luckier than most. The demolition order affects only the roof on one side of the field (covered grandstands remain on the north and west sides and uncovered seating will still be available on the south end). Although the press box will be rebuilt underneath the new roof, all indications are that the status quo will otherwise be restored by the 2017 season.

In contrast, there are no firm timetables for erecting covered stands at Elma and Ocosta.

There is no question that the demolitions were necessary. Aberdeen officials, for example, said a survey of Stewart Field’s south grandstand uncovered a weakened structural integrity of the roof. Rotting has been a problem at other venues.

This news should not be surprising. Most Grays Harbor teams play in aging wooden structures.

Stewart Field marked its 100th year of hosting football in 2015. While it has been renovated several times in the interim, the last major upgrade of the south grandstand occurred some 20 years ago.

There’s little doubt that schools operating without covered grandstands are subject to significant attendance declines, particularly in adverse weather. In my view, those schools should consider scheduling at least a few Saturday afternoon football games to enhance spectator comfort, but that’s a topic for another time.

It is thus imperative that school administrators develop a long-term strategy for modernizing their sports facilities — preferably in a partnership with their taxpayers. Ocosta soccer coach/athletic director Mike King reported that a facilities committee in that district is undertaking such an assignment.

Both sides might have to give a little to reach common ground. School officials should realize that building state-of-the-art facilities may not be feasible in an economically challenged area.

Boosters, meanwhile, need to keep an open mind on the necessity for change and not fall back on a common tradition-above-all stance. To be honest, it drives me crazy to hear an argument such as, “My grandfather played on that field back in 1935. If it was good enough for him, it’s good enough for kids today.”

Leather helmets were once the norm for all forms of football. That doesn’t mean they’d be suitable for today’s game.

For those of us in the media, losing the Stewart Field press box is a sad development — but one that may also have long-term benefits.

When I first began covering Aberdeen High football in the 1970s, reaching the Stewart Field press box required scaling a ladder through a small trap door, then walking a few feet along a sloping roof to the booth. The ladder was eventually replaced by a small flight of stairs.

This unorthodox access inspired a famous incident in the late 1970s. Rotund Seattle sportscaster Wayne Cody, in Aberdeen to call a Seattle Sounders exhibition soccer game, was lifted into the press box via a Quigg Brothers-McDonald crane.

Ever the showman, Cody (who died in 2002) went along with the stunt. Returning to the Harbor a few years later to speak at a bowling banquet, however, he was rankled by the memory — saying he wasn’t consulted about the gimmick and insisting that he could have reached the press box by conventional means.

It is unlikely that Cody had any complaints about his booth. Spacious and offering a panoramic, unobstructed view of the game, the Stewart Field press box would get my vote as the best in Southwest Washington. Hoquiam’s Olympic Stadium is a contender, but partitions sometimes cut off the view of plays near the end zone.

There was, however, one serious problem with the Stewart Field box. Even before the structural deficiencies were discovered, the rooftop location wasn’t entirely safe.

To put it more bluntly, the Aberdeen School District was extraordinarily fortunate that a catastrophic accident didn’t occur on its watch.

Negotiating the sloping roof wasn’t a problem in dry conditions. In wet or icy weather, it was a different story. And those who lost their footing while descending from the press box had only a flimsy, low-slung wire-and mesh net to protect them from plunging into the paved parking lot far below.

My late colleague Ray Ryan, who didn’t care for heights, refused to go to the press box in the final decade of his life. I only had one scare there, but it came in the aftermath of one of the most memorable football games I ever covered — Montesano’s playoff upset of top-ranked King’s on a raw night at Stewart Field during Monte’s 2012 state championship season.

While hustling out of the press box in an attempt to make it to the field for interviews before Montesano’s coaches commenced their traditionally lengthy post-game team meeting, my foot slipped on the icy roof. After skidding a foot or two, I regained my balance.

Making the difficult (for a journalist) decision to put personal safety over deadline considerations, I took my time easing down the steps. For what it’s worth, I also didn’t have any difficulty meeting deadline.

For the most part, it was my pleasure to cover games from the Stewart Field rooftop press box. In the interest of progress and safety, I’m also looking forward to witnessing Bobcat games from a new location.

Rick Anderson: (360) 537-3924; randerson@thedailyworld.com