Salesianum School has reached a tentative agreement to lease Baynard Stadium from the City of Wilmington and take over its operation.
The agreement, which still must be approved by the Wilmington City Council, would allow the private, all-male Catholic school to raise private funds to completely renovate the 94-year-old facility.
Details of the agreement were discussed at a news conference Wednesday at the stadium. City Council president Theo Gregory said he expects the agreement to pass at council’s Nov. 17 meeting.
Baynard Stadium opened in 1922 and received its last major facelift in 1972. The bleachers on the south side of the facility were condemned in May following a structural engineering assessment. They were demolished in July, and a much smaller set of temporary bleachers was installed in time for the start of the fall sports season in September.
But the facility, which is used by several high schools and youth organizations, is in need of much more. It is owned by the City of Wilmington, but is part of Brandywine Park and has been managed by the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) since 1998. With city and state budgets stretched thin, it was likely going to require a private entity to step forward with a proposal for funding renovations.
Baynard Stadium sits right across West 18th Street from Salesianum, a private high school founded in 1903. Sallies raised $7 million through alumni and private donations to build the Anthony N. Fusco Sr. Athletic Center, a renovation and addition to the school’s existing athletic facilities, which opened in 2012.
Now, Salesianum is prepared to do more across the street.
“For us, it’s very much about making a commitment to the city,” Salesianum School president Brendan Kennealey said. “We’ve been in the city for over 100 years, and our expectation is to be here for another 100. This is a way that we can make a meaningful investment in an important asset in this community.”
Kennealey said the renovation would include a new artificial turf playing surface ringed by a new track, new bleachers on both sides with seating similar to the stadium’s current capacity of 5,000, new locker rooms and restrooms, new lights and scoreboard, plus new and additional space for the DNREC maintenance facilities at Brandywine Park.
“It’s an asset that at the moment is underutilized and is really deteriorating, and we believe we’re in a unique position to be able to support the city and its residents by making an investment here,” Kennealey said.
City leaders said their primary concern was making sure all of the community groups who currently use the stadium will continue to have access. Gregory said that was addressed through language agreed to in the proposed lease.
“They have a history of being inclusive, and I’m confident that Salesianum is going to include the entire community fairly in participating on this field,” Gregory said.
Councilman Ernest “Trippi” Congo represents the 2nd District, which includes Baynard Stadium. After some initial questions, he supports the proposal.
“A lot of people I talked to about it were concerned that some of the community organizations who have used this traditionally may not be included in Sallies’ vision,” Congo said. “After talking with Sallies, that is definitely not going to be the case. They want to include more community organizations.”
Kennealey expects the total cost of the renovation to be $15 million to $20 million. He said Salesianum has enough funding in place to start work as soon as permission is granted, but will need to raise more private funds to complete the project.
“Our goal is to get all of that done within five years,” Kennealey said. “It is somewhat subject to construction timelines and fundraising, but that’s the goal we’re working on.”
In addition to high school sports events, Kennealey said the renovated stadium could be opened to private sports events or non-sports events, such as large marching band competitions. The project is expected to create more than 50 new jobs and add more than $7 million to the local economy during construction. Salesianum will work to hire Wilmington residents and contract with Wilmington-based companies during the renovations.
“This could be a real economic development engine for the city,” Kennealey said. “It’s a real win-win for everybody. It’s a win for the organizations that currently use it; they’re going to get a great, new facility. It’s great for Salesianum. And I think it’s great for the city and organizations who don’t have access to the stadium now.”
The lease with the city will have a 50-year term, with a renewable option for an additional 50 years. The lease proposal will be formally introduced at the next City Council meeting on Thursday, then discussed in detail during an Education, Youth and Families committee meeting on Nov. 9. A vote on the proposal by the full 13-member council is expected to be held Nov. 17.
“I think in City Council, we have enough votes to pass it,” Gregory said. “And the mayor is on board. We need seven votes, I’m sure we have seven votes. So it will pass.”
If the lease is approved by council, Kennealey said the school would conduct a search for an architectural firm that specializes in sports stadiums to develop a master plan for the site. He said ABHA Architects of Wilmington, which designed Salesianum’s athletics and science centers in recent years, would also be involved.
Baynard Stadium has been the site of some of Delaware’s greatest high school football games, along with hosting numerous track and field meets, soccer and lacrosse games and other events. Salesianum has long played its home football games there, as well as some soccer and lacrosse games.
Howard High School of Technology, Delaware Military Academy and St. Elizabeth also currently play home football games at the stadium. Padua, Howard and Salesianum host track and field meets, along with CYM, YMCA and City of Wilmington groups. The city also uses the stadium for a flag football league, and Ursuline Academy has played soccer games there.
Kennealey said all schools and organizations currently using the stadium would be welcome to continue using it during and after renovations, under the same financial arrangements they have now.
“They get a pretty good deal out of this,” Kennealey said. “They get to continue playing with Baynard Stadium as their home field for as long as they like, and they’re just going to have a much better facility going forward as these renovations take place. That’s an integral part of what we’re doing.”
A key phase of the project will see the Bermuda grass playing field replaced with an artificial turf surface that will allow for far more use. Kennealey said the renovation would be done in phases to minimize the disruption to use of the facility, and installation of the turf field would be the first priority.
“The number of community organizations that have access to Baynard Stadium at the moment is very limited because the grass is protected,” Kennealey said. “Going forward that will be substantially increased because we will be in a position to use that turf all the time.”
State Sen. Harris McDowell, D-Wilmington North, was instrumental in securing a $200,000 appropriation to allow DNREC to demolish Baynard’s south-side bleachers and replace them with a temporary solution over the summer. He said the proposal will remove a burden from taxpayers.
“It going to actually be some relief to the state,” McDowell said. “It’s going to allow some new, fresh capital that doesn’t have to be brought by the state to be put to work here. That’s a great, great opportunity, and I’m glad that we’ve grabbed it.”
From a football perspective, Salesianum coach Bill DiNardo is glad to see one of the state’s iconic venues be preserved.
“As a kid growing up in grade school, to come to Baynard Stadium to watch a game was the biggest treat in the world,” DiNardo said. “To play here was every kid’s dream. … For us to make this great stadium better, it’s just so exciting. It’s a win-win for the city and for Salesianum.”
Contact Brad Myers at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter: @BradMyersTNJ