When Karin Evanoff walked to the podium at the end of the groundbreaking for the new stadium at Athens Drive High School, the audience gave her a standing ovation.
The applause wasn’t enough to drown out the noise of the heavy machinery behind her, but it showed the respect the community has for the former booster club president who persisted and pushed for changing the conditions at Williams Stadium, the school’s football field.
“She was a big mover and shaker,” school board member Jim Martin said in an interview. “Karin and I spent many hours in conversation on the phone, sitting at a table, looking at plans, figuring out strategy.”
On May 20, school officials and students gathered next to the construction site near the school to commemorate the beginning of the $5 million project that also will include more parking and renovated tennis courts.
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The new stadium, which has yet to be named, is five years in the making for Evanoff – and even longer for the Athens Drive community.
Despite dashed hopes and delays, Evanoff had faith the new stadium would become a reality.
“It’s going to happen, it’s going to happen,” she often said.
On a misty night in the fall of 2010, Evanoff had reached her wit’s end with the poor conditions at dilapidated Williams Stadium. She was carrying a student’s wheelchair onto a platform so he could view a home football game because there was no other handicapped-accessible access.
As she twisted her way onto the platform, she cut her back on a rusty screw that was poking out from the old wooden frame. She referenced that story often over the next five years to bring awareness to the dangerous conditions at the stadium, which hadn’t been touched since the school opened in 1979.
“It was so pathetic what we had to do for a student at Athens Drive so that he could see his own schoolmates in the football game,” Evanoff said. “That was it. I was done. ... That was the beginning of the end.”
The list of things needed at Williams Stadium for safety, sanitary and disability compliance was long. There was no handicapped parking or access to the stands. The road leading to the field was too narrow for emergency vehicles. Plus, there was no place for players to use the bathroom at halftime except the woods.
But fixing the problems proved to be complicated.
The stadium, located more than a half-mile behind the school in the woods of Lake Johnson, is leased by the city to Wake County Public School System.
Any change needed multiple approvals, plus the source of funding had to be determined. Previous renovation efforts of former presidents fizzled out as their students graduated and their investment in the school waned.
Evanoff, with two children who are four years apart, knew she would be in it for the long haul, even after her one year as booster club president during the 2011-12 academic year.
She formed a strong bond with fellow Athens Drive parents Alan Keith and Susan Cowles as the collective voice of the Athens Drive community, with each contributing something different to the cause.
Keith, an engineer, had been trying to help the school’s situation since 2006, even though his daughters had graduated. He teamed up with two architect parents to provide facilities assessments to the various boards. Cowles, a mortgage broker, met with officials behind the scenes.
Evanoff, a nurse, used her people skills and expertise to highlight the safety risks to the right people. She had a dogged determination.
“Karin just kind of pushed it over the top for the county commissioners to reserve the funds to do the stadium improvements,” Keith said.
Although many options to renovate Williams Stadium were discussed, upgrading the stadium could have cost $7.4 million. Officials determined it was less expensive to build a new stadium near the school and transform the old stadium for primarily track and field purposes. A new stadium also avoided any environmental concerns with nearby Lake Johnson.
Martin, the school board member, said his link with Evanoff was pivotal. Martin bridged gaps between the school board and the Raleigh City Council and Wake County commissioners.
Officials found leftover money from a 2006 school construction bond to fund the project. They also will use some of the $50,000 from Athens Drive alumnus Donald Evans, a former NFL player who donated money to be used for a new field house. The field house project never materialized.
On March 17, the school board approved the long-awaited construction contract.
“It was a no-brainer,” Martin said.
The current stadium will finally get some fixes, too, including making the facility more accessible for those with disabilities and resurfacing the track.
Students, who had been doubtful change would ever come, even after the funds were approved in 2013, witnessed Wednesday’s groundbreaking.
“It really is so exciting,” Evanoff said. “It’s really wonderful. Now that the kids can see that it’s going to be a reality here soon, that makes me feel good, too.”
When Evanoff began her quest for the stadium, her son, Tommy, was a freshman. He’s since graduated. Her daughter, Olivia, is still at the school and is a junior.
The new stadium directly behind the school is scheduled to open in fall 2016.
“For the last two years or so I’ve been trying to encourage people to hang with me,” Evanoff said.
At the groundbreaking, as Evanoff got a shovel for the photo-op to end the day, no one smiled wider.