WSSU still working to acquire Bowman Gray despite state hurdles

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The state of North Carolina has thrown up obstacles to Winston-Salem State University’s acquisition of Bowman Gray Stadium, a facility with a proud tradition of stock-car racing. But the restrictions placed on the facility by the Republican-controlled General Assembly also limit the value of the facility.

The city of Winston-Salem’s decision in 2013 to offload two major athletics facilities is a tale of two universities.

Winston-Salem City Council approved a resolution of intent to sell Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum to Wake Forest University and Bowman Gray Stadium to Winston-Salem State University in May 2013. Wake Forest, a private institution, completed the purchase of the Joel on Aug. 1 of that year, and two months later the university announced that Greensboro Coliseum would take over bookings at the Winston-Salem facility.

Bowman Gray Stadium is another story. Four years after the sale of the Joel, the Bowman Gray deal has yet to be consummated. Two significant differences account for the varying fate of Bowman Gray. In contrast to Wake Forest, Winston-Salem State is a public university, and at that a historically black institution with closer ties to the state’s Democratic establishment. And secondly, the stadium hosts stock-car racing — a tradition jealously guarded by a largely white fanbase in Winston-Salem, along with rural Davidson and Stokes counties, that has the ear of conservative lawmakers in Raleigh.

Rosalba Ledezma, associate vice president for facilities management at Winston-Salem State, told a panel of city council members on Monday evening that once the state Department of Environmental Quality signs off on an environmental review of the 85.7-acre site, a resolution to complete the sale of Bowman Gray Stadium and Civitan Park could come before city council by November or December 2018. But that’s only if the UNC Board of Governors approves financing — a move that’s far from certain.

The fraught dynamics surrounding the sale of Bowman Gray Stadium is the legacy of the intertwined class and racial politics of Winston-Salem. The site previously served as a landfill south of the historically black institution founded as Slater Industrial Academy in 1892. The stadium was built in 1937 with a $30,000 gift — covering slightly less than a third of the cost — from the wife of tobacco financier Bowman Gray, Assistant City Manager Ben Rowe told council members. In 1949, NASCAR founders Bill France Sr. and Alvin Hawkins inaugurated weekly stock-car racing on the quarter-mile track inside the stadium. And in 1956, Winston-Salem State began to hold its home football games there as well.

In 2006, the city and the university entered into a joint partnership to finance a fieldhouse at the stadium. The purchase price proposed by the city in 2013 totaling $7.1 million included $4.3 million for the property as is, and $2.8 million to retire the university’s portion of the debt, Rowe said. Since then, he said the university’s portion of the debt has been paid down to $2.4 million.

During environmental assessments of the site in anticipation of purchasing the stadium from the city, the university discovered methane gas — a legacy of the landfill — in the residential neighborhoods to the west and south of the facility. The city installed a remediation system to vent the gas. Keith Huff, the city’s stormwater and erosion director, said the system cost $85,000 in its first year, but the annual cost will likely decrease to about $47,000. He added that the city is committed to maintaining the system as long as it takes to remediate the gas.

In July 2013, two months after Winston-Salem City Council approved the resolution of intent to sell Bowman Gray Stadium, the Republican-controlled General Assembly passed a law imposing a number of conditions on the sale, including requirements that the university not charge parking fees for racing events and allow racing patrons to bring their own food and non-alcoholic beverages into the stadium. The General Assembly also forbade the university from renaming the stadium and mandated that the property continue to be available for racing events.

The slow pace of the transaction is not lost on city council members, and although race did not come up in the discussion, it wasn’t hard to read between the lines.

“We’ve been having this conversation now for four years, and it will extend to five years, and no one can argue with great logic to me that there’s not something else going on within this process,” said Councilman Derwin Montgomery, a Winston-Salem State graduate who represents the East Ward, where the university is located. Montgomery alluded to “those who are behind the scenes and pulling strings and levers, slowing this process down,” adding that citizens should know that it’s the state not the city that’s holding up the sale.

Mayor Pro Tem Vivian Burke, who represents the Northeast Ward, added, “Something is not like it ought to be.”

Rowe said a new appraisal will set a baseline for the sale price, but ultimately the state could offer any amount for the property.

While the General Assembly’s intervention in the sale is widely viewed as a slap in the face to the university, not everyone in the Winston-Salem State University family is enthusiastic about the acquisition.

“As a graduate and as someone whose children have graduated from Winston-Salem State and as someone who has strongly supported the school financially, I think they should reject the whole deal,” said Beaufort Bailey, a past president of the alumni association and former Democratic member of the Forsyth County Commission.

Bailey said it stings that from mid-April through mid-August, Winston-Salem State University would be obliged to vacate the stadium beginning at 5 p.m. on Friday until Monday.

“As long as the racing is involved, we will never own that stadium,” he said.

Despite the liabilities and restrictions on the property, Ledezma said university officials still view the acquisition as a good investment.

“We currently lease Bowman Field and Civitan Park, so we’re already spending the money,” she said. “We’re landlocked and we have no way to expand. We’d like to invest in our own property. We’d like to invest in athletic facilities, and there’s a possibility we could do that at Civitan Park. With the city’s agreement to mitigate the methane gas, that’s a big improvement that’s making the property a better property.”

  • Bennett Smith

    And what does city government think is going on behind the scenes in Raleigh that is delaying the sale of the stadium?