By Kelly Povero
At Appleton (Wis.) West High School, the Terrors football team travels across town to play its home games at Lawrence University. Students attend some physical education classes off-site, and the city council calls the current facilities “unsafe and inadequate.” Despite these shortcomings, boosters’ dreams of building a new athletic complex have divided the district, school, and community.
However, retreat does not seem to be an option for the Terror Backers, the school's athletic boosters, who initially proposed demolishing 21 homes on North Mason Street to make room for a $5 million sports complex. In the two years since the proposal, some homeowners have fought back, asking, “Why North Mason Street? Why us?”
According to the school district, alternative sites were considered for the project, but only North Mason Street, which is adjacent to the school, has "a safe, equitable environment for the athletes and students ... This is the site that makes the most sense because it meets the most needs.”
In their original proposal, the Terror Backers promised to raise $3 million, with the remaining $2 million coming from the district budget. The booster club proposed building eight new tennis courts, a soccer field, an eight-lane all-weather track, and a $1 million football stadium with a 3,000-seat grandstand, a press box, bathrooms, concessions, and storage space. Over time, the school district removed the stadium from its plan, saving two homes from demolition and dropping the price tag by $1 million. Still, the change has not satisfied everybody.
In July 2006, an attorney for six homeowners sent a letter asking the Terror Backers to cease and desist, explaining they had no intention of selling their houses. It wasn't much longer before they filed a lawsuit to prevent boosters from advertising or raising money for the new athletic facilities.
Despite the lawsuit, the school district continued to push the project forward. The city council held a meeting in December 2006, and with a unanimous vote approved the purchase of two vacant warehouses on North Mason Street. Acquiring the land enabled the school to start building the complex, but the purchase only fueled the fire among residents. A county court shortly dismissed the lawsuit, ruling that neither the city nor the homeowners could stop the athletic boosters from raising money to benefit the school.
The Terror Backers also proposed moving some of the homes to vacant lots in the city and took their approach to a new level when they threatened to use eminent domain to acquire the properties. The proposals raised a number of questions: Should residents be forced out of their homes to build a sports complex? Is the addition of new athletic facilities really for the "common good?”
Earlier this summer, the school district forged a compromise and took control of the project. The Terror Backers will continue to raise funds for the complex, but will no longer approach homeowners directly. Instead of buying properties outright, the boosters will donate money to the district. Eminent domain will not be used, and instead of trying to complete the project within the next few years, the district is willing to wait until homes come up for sale.
“It will take longer, certainly, but the initial idea of doing it all at once was kind of dramatic and now it doesn’t seem to be realistic,” School Board President Sharon Fenlon told the Appleton Post-Crescent. “But we think in the long term that it will be better for West and the students that are there.”
Now that the school district has changed its strategy and the boosters have backed off, homeowners are becoming more involved in the expansion process. As of this month, six of the homes are being offered for sale, creating a new problem: The district hasn’t yet raised enough money to buy them all. As board members pursue other sources of funding, including the purchase of naming rights by homeowners, other residents are considering offering their houses, too. “It’s a great opportunity for me," North Mason resident Jenna Smith told the Post-Crescent. “It’s not a seller’s market right now.”
At least two of the remaining homeowners haven’t changed their minds, but appear satisfied with the new approach. “As long as they keep going forward with no pressure on us, that’s what we’re looking for,” homeowner Al Gibson told the Post-Crescent.
What happens if these neighbors stand their ground? Perhaps the district will again adjust its plans. Until there are 19 “for sale” signs, Appleton West will have to continue to search for solutions.
Kelly Povero is an intern at MomentumMedia. She can be reached at: kp@MomentumMedia.com.