New deal brings $9 million in Bowman Gray Stadium improvements, keeps city control

16 November 2018

Winston-Salem will keep possession of Bowman Gray Stadium and make $9 million in improvements, officials announced Wednesday.

In a press conference at the stadium field house, officials said the renovation would help both Winston-Salem State University football and Bowman Gray racing.

The plan announced Wednesday replaces an earlier one to sell the stadium to WSSU, and postpones an effort that WSSU announced earlier this year to build its own stadium under a 20-year master plan.

WSSU’s lease on the stadium runs out in 2037. WSSU officials said that with many other projects on the table, replacing Bowman Gray with a new stadium won’t be a priority before the conclusion of the lease.

Announcing the improvements on Wednesday were Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines and Elwood Robinson, the chancellor of WSSU.

Improvements planned include new restrooms, a high-capacity Wi-Fi system, and seating, parking and landscaping improvements.

The plan also envisions the creation of signs and other features that can be changed seasonally, promoting the stadium for Rams football in the fall and for Bowman Gray racing in the spring and summer.

The football field will be regraded and renamed “Rams Field at Bowman Gray.”

The race track also will be resurfaced and the field house, ticket booths and press boxes will be refurbished. Utilities upgrades will improve the water pressure in stadium facilities.

The proposed improvements must be approved by the City Council. Assistant City Manager Ben Rowe said the improvements would be carried out over a three-year period, and be paid for with what are called limited obligation bonds — a type of funding that does not have to be put before the voters.

The recent renovation of Benton Convention Center was also handled by limited obligation bonds.

Joines pointed out that the city has spent some $4 million at the stadium to correct environmental problems and other issues that had delayed the stadium sale, which was announced in 2013 but which has become stalled in a lengthy approval process.

WSSU no longer plans to buy the stadium, officials said. Robinson said money raised from student fees toward the purchase would now be spent elsewhere on campus with input from the students.

“This alternative approach benefits us financially,” Robinson said during the press conference, adding that the idea for the renovations came about in conversations with city council members, the mayor and business leaders.

Although the WSSU team has played at the stadium since 1956, Robinson said, “the city had not made the kind of investments I thought they should have made.”

In June, WSSU had announced that it was including a 6,000-seat football stadium, built on a new site, that would be built as part of a 20-year plan. The announcement caught city officials off guard, since they assumed WSSU was still moving forward on acquiring Bowman Gray Stadium.

With Wednesday’s announcement, a new stadium falls to low priority for WSSU.

Joines said that the new plan for the stadium is no retreat for the city, but represents investing more to “ensure this treasure in our city will have a long and fruitful life in our community.”

Officials said design of the improvements will take place in 2019, with construction beginning in 2020 and wrapping up in 2022.

To minimize disruptions of operations, work would be conducted in phases over three years, during the four months from December to March between football and racing seasons, the city said. As much as possible, existing facilities, such a concession stands and restrooms, would remain in place while the replacement facilities are under construction.

Harold Day, a local citizen and racing fan who has long opposed the sale, said the new deal is a “happy medium” for all the parties.

“It belongs to the people, to the citizens of Winston-Salem,” Day said. “That was where I stood all along. When one person buys it, it changes that. It belongs to everybody, and I think the Gray family that gave the money to build it had that intent.”

Rowe said that every year, city officials walk the race track at the stadium and inspect it to see where it needs to be patched. With the renovation, he said, the track can be taken all the way down to the subsurface and built back up.

The stadium was built during the Great Depression under the Works Progress Administration. Nathalie Gray, the widow of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. president Bowman Gray Sr., donated $30,000 toward the local $100,000 match required to bring in the federal funds to build the stadium.

NASCAR racing started at the stadium in 1949, and in 1956 the stadium became the home field for WSSU, then known as Winston-Salem Teachers College.

For several years, WSSU has managed the stadium under a deal with the city, but now that the stadium transfer is no longer on the agenda, the city will take over management again.