The football and track stadium at St. Augustine’s College hasn’t yet been built, but neighbors and school leaders are arguing over the number and type of events that should be allowed there.
When the city issued a permit for the stadium last year, council members granted St. Augustine’s permission for up to 15 events per year – a restriction intended to placate neighbors fearful of frequent noise and traffic disruptions.
St. Aug’s returned to City Hall last week to ask for the right to hold community events that would not count against the total, saying a well-managed stadium and track can be a place for local grammar school and youth programs in addition to college sports.
But the City Council granted permission for only two: a Special Olympics of North Carolina competition and a Southeastern U.S. Masters track and field event for competitors ages 30 and up.
The city should stick with the original deal, Mayor Nancy McFarlane said.
“We made a pact with the surrounding neighborhoods,” McFarlane said. “I’m not saying totally no, but I feel a strong need to honor the commitment that we made.”
Town-gown relations at issue
McFarlane left open the possibility of reconsidering the decision within a year, but only if St. Augustine’s shows it can manage traffic and crowd flow at the 2,500-seat venue and improve outreach with surrounding neighborhoods.
The dispute between the college and its neighbors goes beyond the stadium issue. One neighbor complained about the pace of the school’s cleanup efforts after the April 2011 tornadoes. Another cited the school’s failure to restore the crumbling St. Agnes Hospital building on campus.
“If we do have a problem with any of the events, we do not have strong faith that they are going to respond appropriately when they have not on other issues,” said John Seitz, who has lived on Glascock Street for 11 years.
College leaders say they’ve worked to change perceptions. The school has held neighborhood cleanup days and repaired aging houses through a community reinvestment program, said Marc Newman, vice president for development.
“At the end of the day we’re never going to please everybody,” Newman said in an interview. “We’ve come to that conclusion. But we do know we’re committed to being a good neighbor.”
Council members Eugene Weeks and John Odom cast the dissenting votes in a 6-2 outcome, arguing the school should be granted leeway to run its stadium.
“St. Aug’s is in an area of town we’re trying to help build,” Odom said. “Here we are trying to hogtie them in the things they can do. We’re handcuffing a university that has been around for many years.”
Construction set to begin
The conflict is playing out before the school begins construction on the long-planned athletic venue. Crews are expected to begin laying the foundation for bleachers this week, Newman said.
The goal: To complete the stadium in time for the Sept. 1 home opener against Wingate University.
Since the football program returned in 2002 after a 37-year hiatus, St. Augustine’s has tromped across town to play in high school stadiums, most recently at Broughton in central Raleigh.
Crews finished work in spring 2011 on a turf field and nine-lane track.
As part of the original permit, St. Augustine’s agreed to establish a stadium committee to field complaints from neighbors. The panel will include representatives from neighborhood community advisory councils.
Newman said the college plans to convene a group by June. For now, that’s where the school ought to focus its efforts, said Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin.
“We shouldn’t be refereeing this,” she said. “They should be working together. Quite frankly, this is an opportunity for both sides to step up.”