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Drake Stadium group goes for gold


One well-placed comment by a national track and field official has triggered a bold change in strategy for backers of the proposed Drake Stadium renovation. “Mark Bockelman, the NCAA associate commissioner for championships, visited recently and made a point of telling us, ‘We want you to bid on hosting the 2007 NCAA track and field regionals — and the 2008, 2009 and 2010 nationals,’” said Drake University President David Maxwell.

Excited by that contact and follow-up conversations, “We stepped back and said, ‘What do we absolutely have to get done to bid for the 2007 regionals?’” Maxwell said. He and the renovation project’s volunteer leadership team reworked their three-part plan into a two-phase proposal that packs most of the crucial work into phase one: structural repairs to the stadium, changes to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act, a synthetic field surface, a reconfigured track, a new scoreboard, lighting, some pressbox remodeling and a good share of the planned concession and restroom renovation.

The price tag for all of that stands at $11 million, which must be raised through private or corporate donations. A handful of donors have propelled the fund raising to a fast start by pledging nearly $6 million. A $1 million commitment came from Franklin “Pitch” Johnson, founder of Amgen Inc., a global biotechnology company, whose father coached the Drake track team in the 1930s. And if a donor would like permanent recognition for his or her efforts, that’s a possibility. “There are naming opportunities available,” Maxwell said. “The field, the stadium itself – although no one would like to see the Drake name disappear completely.”

The fund raising continues among potential large donors, fueled by this theory: By spending $11 million now, we’re almost certain to generate an economic impact in Des Moines of $70 million to $90 million from those four major NCAA track and field events alone. The national championship stays in one location for three consecutive years, and could be expected to return every 10 to 12 years, Maxwell said.

The fund-raisers can’t guarantee potential donors that major NCAA events will come to Drake if the renovation takes place. “It’s not guaranteed, but it’s awfully probable,” Maxwell said.

He contends that the NCAA would look favorably on the bid for several reasons. “This stadium is hallowed ground in the track and field community; we have a great location, because there’s no dedicated world-class track and field center in the Midwest; we have an experienced staffing base, including some officials with up to 25 years of Drake Relays experience; and we have demonstrated fan commitment – we’ve been filling the stadium for the Saturday session of the Relays for 34 years.”

Maxwell also has met with other important players in the track world, including Phil Knight, CEO of Nike Inc. and part of the University of Oregon’s winning four-mile relay team at the 1959 Drake Relays. “Total up all of the events that we think we can bring here and you’re looking at a $300 million economic impact every decade,” Maxwell said. “And that’s a pretty conservative estimate.”

Jack Taylor, CEO of the Taylor Construction Group and co-chairman of the fund-raising campaign, said, “There are other reasons for doing this project” even if the NCAA rejects the bids. “The stadium needs to join the 21st century. But we’ve had so many good conversations and visits that I would say the probability of landing those events is very high. The potential value of that return is definitely worth what I would call a minor risk.”

In the eyes of track and field competitors and NCAA officials, the most important part of the renovation plan involves changes in the track itself. “It’s a non-conforming track by international standards,” Maxwell said. The track has a flat spot on the north end and lacks a safety lane alongside the wall, and the radius of the curves is smaller than the contemporary standard. As a result, performances in some events suffer, and even if an athlete turns in an outstanding result, the international track sanctioning groups wouldn’t recognize it. “The concern is, how long are the Drake Relays going to remain viable when some events don’t count for the athletes?” Maxwell said.

Renovation can’t begin until all of the phase one money is in hand. Planners hope to start work after the 2005 high school state track meets and finish in time for the 2006 Drake Relays. Taylor, who oversaw the demolition and reconstruction of Sec Taylor Stadium in a six-month span, sees no problem with that timetable.

For phase two, the same group would set out to raise another $11 million to transform the pressbox and dress up the exterior of the stadium with a Relays Hall of Fame plaza along the west side.

“If we get phase one funded, it would be foolish not to keep the momentum alive and keep going with phase two,” Maxwell said.   

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