COVINGTON, Ga. -- More than a month ago, when three days of steady rain pelted the metro Atlanta area, including Covington and Sharp Stadium leaving the home field for Newton County’s three GHSA football schools a soupy mess, the Eastside Eagles — in the midst of an historic, undefeated season — put out the news that playing one of its biggest games in years at home would not be possible.
Thanks to the kindness of nearby Social Circle High School, the Eastside-Burke County game was able to be moved to Social Circle’s artificial turf playing surface that was unhindered by the rains that muddied Sharp’s natural grass.
The benevolent gesture was greatly appreciated by Eastside fans. But the necessity of it also rankled the nerves of some, and touched off a discussion about the need to find a way for county schools to have their own football stadiums, a la neighboring Rockdale County.
Now that the football season is done, we thought it would be a good time to start exploring a little more deeply the issue of adequate athletic facilities in the area with a series of articles, Q&As and columns that will hopefully shed some greater light on where a steadily growing Newton County is in terms of its athletic facilities.
To start things off, Tom Garrett, director of facilities for the Newton County School System, sat down to chat with us about everything from the scope of his and his department’s duties and the Sharp Stadium rain debacle down to the prospect of schools having their own football stadiums.
STOVALL: What’s your full scope of duties as director of facilities, and what does that look like for you sort of from day to day?
GARRETT: “We generally are responsible for maintenance and repairs on all the buildings that make up our area. We have 28 locations altogether, and our work includes keeping up with the grounds as well. In addition to that, any new construction, major renovations. We’re kind of a one-stop shop for all things pertaining to buildings, maintenance and grounds in the school system, including, but not limited to athletic facilities. We have 24 active schools, a board office which is in a separate building, a service building, and, of course, Sharp Stadium which is in a separate location.”
STOVALL: I think I read where the county has over 886 acres of athletic fields to keep up to date. With such a huge undertaking, how much manpower does it take, and what all goes into the upkeep of those fields?
GARRETT: “Well, we have, from the central office standpoint, each school has custodians, five maintenance guys and we have office support staff as well. We rely very heavily on contractors to fill that void of getting everything done. And close to 100 percent of our grounds maintenance is done by either contracted laborers.
“But we don’t want to leave out the coaches who do a lot of work. The coaches and their staffs. How they manage everything is a major part of helping keep our playing fields in good condition. Coaches do a lot to keep everything up. Booster clubs are involved in that too. It’s really a team effort, given how much ground there is to cover. We certainly have a standard we try to keep everything to. As far as how often grass is cut and how often fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides are applied. But the coaches, athletic directors, they really do a lot to help out.”
STOVALL: When it comes to Sharp Stadium, it’s a 56-year old stadium, and it serves three schools, and the wear-and-tear that comes with a bunch of heavy dudes playing football. What goes into the specific upkeep of that stadium, given that it’s a natural grass field, in order to keep it in as good as condition as it is? How much manpower hours is done on the grass surface, but also on the other areas of the stadium?
GARRETT: “As you said, with football and soccer being played there, the field takes a beating. Any field that’s going to have those sports there takes a beating. We do some annual top dressing, and if there are big indentions or big holes in the fields, we’ll do some additional work there. That’s generally all the kinds of repairs we see on a regular basis.
“About 10 years or so ago, they re-did all the drains and drain layers under the field at Sharp. That was a key renovation because keeping the field drained is a key part of keeping it in good condition throughout the year. There’s a sand layer under there that helps get the water out. And, you know, we try to do as much fertilization, the best regimen of fertilization we can do to keep it looking good. We overseed it in the winter and try to maintain things because we know soccer plays on it as well, so the mowing being maintained, the field being irrigated, we keep that going during the soccer season.
“Baseball fields don’t generally take the kind of abuse football or soccer fields do. But if we’re made aware of anything, and definitely if it’s a safety issue, we try to jump on it as quickly as we can.”
STOVALL: Obviously, a big topic of discussion toward the end of the football season was Eastside’s inability to play at Sharp during its second round playoff game, because of the rain the surface saw, What contributed to that beyond just the rain itself?
GARRETT: “Last year where we didn’t have that issue, it’s all about the timing of the weather and the games, and honestly a lot of luck involved, really. Just depending on the sequence of the weather and the games. This is my third football season here, and we’ve been very fortunate to where no games were played during or right after a real heavy rain. This year went pretty well, but we maybe were not as fortunate toward the end here.
“Like I said, this is my third football season I’ve been in this position, and we hadn’t had any games played anywhere else due to weather. And to my knowledge that hasn’t happened at least in recent history. The thing that made this different was the fact that the field already had a lot of wear on it from the first 15 games played on it, and it was just a timing issue as much as anything.
“The rain, if it had happened in a similar situation before the grass was so worn in the middle from the season, you may not have had quite as much impact from that rain. Earlier in the growing season the grass is in a little bit better shape. But with this rain coming, and the cold weather, the grass was starting to go dormant, and that just made it hard for it to recover in time with that much rain. I don’t know if there’s any physical thing that we could’ve done any different to avoid that situation happening.”
STOVALL: That said, kind of a two-part question for you:
1. We’ve seen where SPLOST dollars have been approved for replacing the Sharp Stadium grass with artificial turf. Is there any way to know how soon that could take place?
2. It may be a big ol’ pipe dream question, but Is it possible to consider a scenario in the forseeable future where schools could find a way to construct even just a basic football stadium on their grounds to prevent three highly competitive schools from having to share the same stadium?
GARRETT: “Well, let me say as far as replacing the grass with artificial turf, that’s definitely in the SPLOST that was just approved in May. Now, the collection for that doesn’t begin right away. I believe it’ll be another year or so before money is collected. So we don’t yet have a specific schedule for when that would happen. I think the collection period begins in January 2020 for that SPLOST, and it’s a five-year period, so maybe it would be something done possibly fairly early in that period.
“But the replacement of the surface is definitely in the plan and it’s been approved by the voters. And that will be something we’ll be pretty happy about.
“As far as the stadiums are concerned, I think there’s a couple of answers for that: One answer is, I feel we’re moving toward that. As far Newton and Alcovy, the master land plans that have been made show a place for a stadium, field house, grand stands and the whole setup. Of course, Eastside High School is set for a new facility, and in the new Eastside’s master land plans, the same thing is part of the plan as well. It’s there. Now to say that it’s in the master land plan isn’t the same as saying we’re about to go build stadiums. The financing for it is not currently in place. That’s something that goes above us.”
*The next story in the series will explore the dynamics of other school districts that have shared football stadiums, and the differences and similarities between those systems and Newton County.