During two and a half hours of discussion Tuesday night, the Marietta Board of Education set an unofficial target of $10 million for the project after receiving three different versions of what could be done. The lowest had an estimated $6.5 million cost, while the highest came in at $16 million.
Voters approved the stadium renovation as part of a 1 percent sales tax for school construction projects expected to bring in $55 million over the next four years. Board chair Randy Weiner said upgrades include all-new wiring, new plumbing, a new sound system, more seats and widening the field while leaving historical aspects like the stone wall intact. The project is supposed to break ground after the last game of the 2014 football season and be finished in time for the 2015 season.
But it appears $6.5 million won’t cover the costs of the project.
“Renovating Northcutt will be very expensive.” said Weiner, a 1985 MHS graduate.
He said his understanding was always that the school system’s building fund could be used to cover costs beyond $6.5 million.
Northcutt Stadium, which opened in 1940 at a cost of $25,000, holds a special place in the hearts of long-time Mariettans.
“People have grown up going to Friday night football games here in town,” said Weiner. “I’d like to keep as much of the historical integrity in place as possible.”
That historic attachment is one reason the stadium remained when a brand-new Marietta High School opened a decade ago. The old MHS campus is now Marietta Middle School, but Northcutt Stadium sits intact, within walking distance of downtown Marietta, as it has been for the last 74 years. Even a decision on whether or not to install artificial turf at the stadium came down to a 4-3 vote, with natural grass coming out on top.
Tradition and history is also the reason why the board chose to renovate the stadium rather than build a new one at Marietta High School, according to Weiner.
Marietta schools chose LaGrange-based Torrance Construction Co. over five other bidders for the project, but did so without getting cost estimates from any of the companies. Instead, Superintendent Emily Lembeck said Torrance was hired as a “contractor at risk,” choosing the company based on its “history, references and the types of jobs they’ve done before.”
The firm has previously built for the district and was responsible for construction of the Marietta Sixth Grade Academy and the Marietta High School Performing Arts Center.
“It wasn’t like anybody had a low bid,” Lembeck said. “They are just told this is how much we want to spend, which is $6.5 million. But after they work with the architect and the scope and construction committees, that’s when they develop the cost for the project to bring back.”
Another factor Lembeck cited in the higher cost is that the project was first discussed in the fall of 2012, and some of the plans changed since then.
The school system used a traditional low-bidder process in hiring an architect, choosing a $300,000 bid from Atlanta-based Gardner, Spencer, Smith, Tench and Jarbeau over higher bids from three other firms.
Torrance did have a lower fee than its contracting competitors at 6 percent. The next-lowest was 8.5 percent from Marietta-based Ajax Building Corp. Winter Construction, also of Marietta, had the highest fee at 12.7 percent.
A decade ago, the Marietta school board got into hot water when construction of a brand-new Marietta High School was supposed to cost $35 million but came in $20 million over budget. Several school board members were ousted in the aftermath of the controversy. The current board hopes to avoid a similar situation this time around.
Both Weiner and Lembeck said they weren’t opposed to using the district’s building fund on top of SPLOST if needed. The building fund sits at $4.1 million right now, so in theory ,up to $10.6 million could be spent using those two sources.
School board member Jason Waters said previously the SPLOST number was never intended to cover the whole renovation.
“SPLOST doesn’t cover the whole project,” said Waters. “If we have the necessary funds and need them, then yes, I think we need to build a first-class facility.”
The board got a look at three different options Tuesday, the first of which did not include widening the field or addressing many of the other issues identified by the school board. It was all but ruled out Tuesday night. The second version was built around completely tearing down the home side and rebuilding with aluminum bleachers and a two-story press box.
But the school board didn’t like the look of the exterior facade and also ruled it out. The third version, while out of the school system’s budget, included extensive renovations to both the home and visitor’s side of the stadium, multiple entrances to the home side bleachers, a 140-foot press box and other new features.
Weiner and school board member Jill Mutimer both said a big priority is keeping the existing home stands rather than tearing them down.
“We need to keep Northcutt special,” Weiner said.
The board hopes the final project can look like the third option but with the price tag reduced to around $10 million. To get the number lowered the board will consider shortening the press box, cutting out special grass that can be used for parking outside the stadium and other options. They will meet again in the next couple of weeks to discuss the issue again.