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Officials await money for Brickyard improvements

There are improved restrooms.

The home-side concession stand is bigger.

The parking lot across Main Street is almost finished.

But local football fans are thinking bigger and want to see more.

The confines of the Brickyard are too small to hold all the Bulldog spirit on Friday evenings in the fall, and for almost two years, local leaders and the Thomson High faithful have talked about an expansion project. The renovations were part of the push for voters to approve the fifth round of collections of Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax passed in September of 2006.

But since then, little major work has taken place.

Part of the problem is the flow of sales tax dollars - the collections for that round began this month. Assistant Superintendent Jim Franklin said because people voted for the SPLOST IV in 2006, they expected the money to be available in 2006.

"But it's a five-year SPLOST," he said. "So those funds don't come in until the second, third, fourth or fifth year. It's not something they are going to see right away. But, during the five year period, they will see what they voted for materialize."

Officials originally hoped to have the Brickyard finished by the 2008 football season, but that's not going to happen. It's a combination of setting priorities, hammering out plans and the cost of projects that has handicapped progress.

"I know there are a lot of people out there concerned and interested," said Superintendent Mark Petersen. ...We are going to do it. But the unknown is when."

Setting priorities

Dr. Petersen considers himself a "schools first" man. The stadium improvements are on the drawing board, but there are other things that must come first, he said.

Take, for example, completing the new junior high school. Built with a combination of sales tax from dollars from two collection periods and $2 million from the state, the $17 million building is nearing completion.

"We are working to get that school finished," he said in an interview last week. "And for me to do something with the Brickyard before getting the school finished, well, I think they'd run me out of town. The trouble is, people want stuff now. And I know they think badly of me about the Brickyard, but I'm a school man first."

And that is not to say some work will not still be done in the interim. Dr. Franklin said small improvements, projects less than $50,000 each, may continue until the big project begins. Dr. Franklin said those small improvements could include field house and bleacher improvements.

Paying for plans

After the new junior high school is completed, planning work is slated to begin in earnest on the new Norris Elementary School, according to Dr. Franklin. Since there are no plans for the school, officials don't know how much the new school will cost.

But officials do know it'll be the main project coming out of the same sales tax pot as the Brickyard renovations. Also pulling from the next sales tax pot will be a variety of big projects, including new technology equipment in all schools and major renovations on existing schools. The two projects will not be competing for the sales tax dollars, per se, but they will have to be completed as money comes in. Due to the size of all the ESPLOST projects, officials say they are able to work on only one at the time.

Collection of the next round of sales tax dollars begins this month, so at this point, there is no money in local coffers for the work. But one thing is clear: Whatever amount they receive, it won't be enough.

Officials aren't sure what will be done at the Brickyard or how much the work will cost. A committee of local supporters met a couple of times during the summer of 2006 to layout a wish list of improvements.

It's been years since significant money has been put into the 65-year-old home of the Thomson High Bulldogs, and ideas will have to be considered carefully due to all the history and tradition involved. Not only will renovations include more seating for fans, more restrooms and an improved visitor concession area, but the field needs to be repositioned and reworked to improve drainage.

An architectural firm was brought in to look at the Brickyard and give them a "ballpark figure" of the work being considered. Dr. Petersen said "it was an astronomical number."

"So large, in fact, that I don't know where to go next," he said. "I have been meeting with the Fanning Institute of the University of Georgia and they are trying to help us find grants to help."

Until he knows where the money is coming from and how much he'll have, Dr. Petersen said there's no sense in making substantial plans.

"We want to make it right," he said in a previous interview. "What other kind of activities can you have where it doesn't matter if you're black or white, rich or poor, you come together for a common cause? And we need to have more of those kinds of activities going on."

Web posted on Thursday, March 13, 2008

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