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Beam me up

They held the topping-out ceremony for the new press box at War Memorial Stadium on Thursday under blue skies.

The rains of Wednesday afternoon had washed some of the pollen away. Gary Smith, the activist, hyperkinetic chairman of the War Memorial Stadium Commission, could not have chosen a better day for the 11:30 a.m. ceremony. With heavy winds, the beam swung back and forth as it was raised to the top of the infrastructure on the west side of the venerable stadium. But the crew from Kinco Constructors did its job, and everyone was soon headed under the stands to eat barbecue from Whole Hog.

Atop that final beam, a U.S. flag on one side and an Arkansas flag on the other side stood straight out in the breeze.

It’s truly amazing what the War Memorial Stadium Commission has achieved with its aging facility in recent years — new lights, new scoreboards with video boards on both ends of the stadium, a new artificial turf on the field (which will be replaced yet again prior to the 2010 season), a total renovation of the south end zone, renovation of the concession stands, restroom renovations and an exterior renovation that took a dull facade and made it look new again.

For a stadium that was named in honor of military veterans from Arkansas, it was fitting that the invocation was delivered by a man in uniform. It also was fitting that his son was playing on the field at the time — a field that has hosted so many high school and college football players through the decades.

Doug Wasson, the Kinco president and my fellow Arkadelphia native, referred to it as “the people’s stadium.”

It’s just that.

In terms of sky boxes, club seats and other amenities, Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville is a far superior facility. But thousands of Arkansans have a special place in their hearts for War Memorial Stadium. To this day, the atmosphere for Razorback games in Fayetteville rarely matches the atmosphere of the Little Rock games. And War Memorial also is needed to provide a central location for the six high school state championship games.

It’s nice that the state of Arkansas (many Arkansans mistakenly believe War Memorial Stadium is a city facility) hasn’t allowed the 54,000-seat venue to deteriorate.

Smith related how Keith Jackson, the color analyst on Razorback football broadcasts, had called him almost three years ago and said, “We need to raise about $10,000 to renovate that radio both. It’s terrible.”

Smith replied: “We need to do raise a lot more than that.”

The radio booth had been named in honor of Jim Elder and Paul Eells, and Smith was embarrassed by its condition. The commission thus set out on a three-year plan to raise $8 million for a totally new press box.

Demolition of the old press box begain Dec. 15, just after the high school state title games. The new press box is scheduled to be completed by Aug. 15 in time for several high school openers. The Razorbacks will make the first of two 2010 visits to Little Rock on Sept. 11, and Smith hopes to hold an open house on Sept. 10.

The new press box will be three stories tall — 172 feet long and 112 feet high. The old structure was opened in 1966 and was considered a state-of-the-art facility in its day. In fact, the Football Writers Association of America once voted it the best college press box in the country.

The new press box will be 10,000 square feet larger than the old structure. Club seating will expand from 228 seats to 500 seats with five suites. Behind those suites will be a reception area with a kitchen and a dining room.

Smith also told of how former Razorback football player Muskie Harris had asked him to “just change the carpet and get a better TV” in the Lettermen’s Club on the west side of the stadium. Smith announced that the club will be totally renovated prior to next football season.

The members of the War Memorial Stadium Commission have been masters at pulling together money from various pots, even during a prolonged recession — the University of Arkansas athletic department, the state Legislature, the office of Gov. Mike Beebe, the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council (which doles out the proceeds of the state’s real estate transfer tax) and others.

Those funds will help pay for the 450 tons of structural steel, the 7,162 square feet of glass and the 50,000 square feet of exterior panels that will make up the new press box.

Louis Schaufele of Little Rock, who served on the War Memorial Stadium Commission for many years, sat in a golf cart on the windy morning and gave the “thumbs up” for the beam to be raised.

It marked the culmination of a lot of work by a lot of people.

Smith is joined on the War Memorial Stadium Commission by Brenda Scisson of Little Rock, Charlie Holt of Stuttgart, Kevin Crass of Little Rock, Dorance Damron of Fort Smith, Donnie Cook of Little Rock, Jim Hill of Nashville and Nancy Monroe of Little Rock.

With a little help from its friends, War Memorial Stadium is aging quite gracefully.

Now if only the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences would find a way to save the actual playing field at Ray Winder Field, if only the city of Little Rock would commit to long-term improvements to War Memorial Park, if only. . .

That’s another post for another time.

For those of us who want to see a renewed focus on midtown Little Rock, Thursday was a good day.

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