New facility will cost $1.7 million
By DAVID MITCHELL
Standing in the Central High weight room, school principal Tommy Vickers attempted to give context to what he described as a "need," rather than a want, for his high school.
"This was built at a time in 1991 when the only people who lifted weights were football players," said Vickers, surrounded by 15 weightlifting stations he said ideally accommodate four individuals each simultaneously. "So this was built for about 65 players. Well, now just the varsity football program is at about 150. So we can't even work out in here with just the varsity football team."
He and other school and city officials hope to rectify that problem with the development of an expansion facility on the school's campus. Along with the $3.1 million STEM Center that will be built on the Phenix City Intermediate School Campus, the expansion facility will cost about $1.7 million to build.
But it isn't just about football. In 1992, Central had 560 athletes participating on 26 different teams, according to numbers released by Friends of Phenix City Schools. In 2015, those numbers will be 1,030 and 48, increases of approximately 84 percent over the past 23 years.
During the summer, athletes in every sport have need for the weight room, so teams are given an allotted time to use the current facility on Monday through Thursday. The first team comes in at 7 a.m., and it is occupied through 5 p.m. each day.
"That gives you some perspective," he said. "In 1991, this was awesome. This was state of the art. In 2015, 24 years later, this is what most junior highs have at your Class 7A schools."
And those numbers will only increase in the near future, Vickers said.
"Right now, our enrollment is about 1,300 students
at Central and 475 at the freshman academy," he explained. "But there's about 600 students in every grade level from kindergarten to fourth grade right now. So that's 2,400. I'm pretty full right now, so we're having to think ahead for years down the road."
The expansion project calls for it to be built on the Central High and Freshman Academy campus.
Originally, Vickers said, the thought was to place the facility at the top of a hill behind the school where the second of two practice football fields currently sits. It was the most open area on campus and didn't have some of the structural drawbacks other locations could pose.
The issue, though, was that students who worked out in the morning would have to travel outside to the main building to attend class. In the event of a storm or other inclement weather, there would be no protections for the students.
So officials settled on a medium-sized plot of land adjacent to the freshman academy, directly behind the outfield fence of the softball field.
Designs, which have been approved by superintendent Randy Wilkes, athletic director Bobby Wright and Vickers, call for a main facility with two adjoining classrooms, offices and a training room that will replace the one currently located by the practice football field. The entire facility will be connected to the freshman academy by a covered walkway.
Vickers estimated that the main facility itself would be 150 feet wide by 150 feet long. Bordering a multi-purpose turf surface in the center of the room will be an area where an estimated 22 new weight stations will be located.
"It gives us the ability to, in the summertime, put football players over here where there are enough stations to accommodate them and other sports in the other weight room," Vickers said. "It just gives us the capability to work out more individuals at one time."
Lest people think the entire facility will be dedicated to athletics, Vickers detailed the two 60-seat stadium-style classrooms, which can be divided by partitions to be used by multiple classes during the day.
And the training room, he said, will be better suited for the school's health care academy, which has 30 students signed up for a class on athletic injuries next year.
"We need to provide them with a place to actually go and treat athletes with ultrasound, compression boots, anything else -- train them to use the equipment they'd use if they go into sports physical therapy."
The plans have been approved by school officials, but are still in the process of being approved by the city and Alabama State Department of Education. Issues such as safety and handicap accessibility must be confirmed before construction can begin. Vickers said the hope is to have everything in place by the end of August, putting development on schedule to open the facility in August 2016.
Costs and benefits
The construction of both the STEM Center and the expansion have already been funded by a bond issue for more than $10 million last year by the Phenix City Board of Education.
But items like weight stations, classroom partitions, removable batting cages, among many others, will be paid for by a $1.1 million fundraising effort by the Friends of Phenix City Schools. That $1.1 million will fund the interior of both the STEM Center and the expansion facility, and Vickers noted that the former is of higher priority than the latter. In other words, he said, if efforts fail to reach the desired total, it will come out of athletics, not education.
"The hope is that we won't face that problem," Vickers said. "And if we do, it won't necessarily mean we can't buy everything we want. We just may not got the top-of-the-line item that we'd like to have."
Vickers isn't immune to some negative attention the expansion project has gotten. Individuals question the allocation of so much money toward athletics. But the principal is quick to dismiss that notion.
"This isn't just football -- or athletics, for that matter -- that will benefit," he said, before naming off all the activities that will be able to use the building:
Fitness training for ROTC, band, wrestling, cheerleading, health, driver's education and physical education. Currently cheerleader practice in a hallway and wrestlers in the cafeteria, he said. That will change with the added space.
"I know you won't satisfy everyone, but I don't understand the naysayers who don't want to give these kids the best," Vickers said. "Seventy percent of the kids who stay in school do it for the extracurriculars. When we're focused on graduation rate and keeping kids in school, if this facility can help do that, that should be a major goal."
David Mitchell, Follow David on Twitter @leprepsports