They’re celebrating another big football season at Eastern Washington.
The Eagles are 10-1, ranked second in the nation and just won another Big Sky Conference title, their fifth in seven years. Now it’s on to the playoffs.
Once again, coach Beau Baldwin has put another winner on the field. That would be Roos Field, which is marking its 50th anniversary.
But don’t expect a party. Instead of celebrating the past, many fans want to bury it. Or at least make a few renovations.
For them, pride in the football program is almost matched by their embarrassment at the antiquated facilities, especially the high-schoolish visitor’s bleachers and the rundown snack bar at the south entrance that doubles as a restroom.
In a stadium built for 8,600, the Eagles routinely draw 10,000 and have sold out their last 20 regular-season games.
That means growing pains, and Roos Field has felt plenty of them.
“Every Saturday we’re challenged infrastructurally, how to better serve our fan base, and that includes the student body,” athletic director Bill Chaves said. “Fifty years ago, you couldn’t image the density we have.”
At the “Red Zone,” a forum for Eastern sports fans, a thread devoted to the stadium has reached 67 pages. Stretching back to 2010, it chronicles six years of occasional triumphs but mostly frustration at the lack of progress in upgrading the stadium.
That’s old news to Chaves.
“Every function I go to, it’s, ‘When are we going to do the stadium project?’ ” he said recently.
For most fans, the wish list includes expanded seating on the visitor’s side, more luxury boxes, removal and relocation of the track and a “horseshoe” to enclose the north end of the stadium.
That will cost about $20-25 million – a major stumbling block for an athletic department that already receives 69 percent of its $13.5 million budget from school subsidies and student fees.
Six years later, little has changed. A video scoreboard was added in 2012, followed by a fan store and an expanded parking lot to improve the game-day experience.
But no amount of red turf can conceal half a century’s worth of age spots, and the university seems no closer to making a decision on whether or not to even renovate the stadium.
Four years were lost as the university chased the Gateway Project, a $65-million multiuse facility that was proposed in 2012 but failed through lack of private donations.
Meanwhile, many of the amenities contained in the Gateway proposal were incorporated in the recently approved $40 million Pence Union Building renovation.
That, in turn, narrowed the scope of any stadium renovation. Earlier this year, university President Dr. Mary Cullinan sent the project to Chaves.
A vision for Roos Field
“We’ve spent the last six to nine months rescoping what the original vision was, to make it an athletic venue,” Chaves said.
Chaves moved quickly to explore the potential of farmland north of the stadium, but experts advised that the infrastructure costs would reach $45 million.
Coming full circle to the existing stadium, Chaves has a wish list that largely matches the fans’:
- Removing the track and relocating it to university-owned land near the intramural fields south of Reese Court. The land would also house an upgraded soccer field.
- Shifting the football field toward the existing west-side grandstands and expanding the east-side grandstands while adding premium seating.
- Adding an enclosure “so it feels like there’s a sense of place, so that the stadium isn’t floating as much,” Chaves said.
Those are the highlights, though nothing has been committed to paper, and no formal discussions have taken place at the administration level.
The school’s Board of Regents hasn’t publicly discussed the issue, though Cullinan said in a statement last month that she is “in support of the university moving forward as it explores its options in regards to a stadium project.”
As with most capital projects, a stadium renovation demands a great deal of “alignment” among the major players, to use one of Chaves’ favorite words.
At some point, Cullinan and the Board of Regents will undertake the issue during one of their monthly workshops.
“Our board and our president are very supportive of expanding the stadium,” Chaves said. “It just has to be right for our student-athletes, our athletic department and our university.”
That means being cost-effective, but it also means coming up with at least $20 million, partly from private donations but mostly from bonds, student fees and other university resources.
Chaves hopes skeptics can look past the expenses. Citing the example of Gonzaga’s basketball team, he sees intercollegiate athletics as a vehicle to raise the profile of the entire university and lessen its reputation as a commuter school.
“I think it’s something that would attract and retain students at Eastern and ultimately help graduation rates,” Chaves said.
“This school has changed dramatically. I would challenge even our alums who went to school back in the day – whatever that means to them – to come on out.”
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