By Rob Ketcham
The Cullman Times
Vinemont High is officially accepting donations for the construction of its first track.
There’s just one teeny, tiny catch, though — the school still doesn’t have a piece of land to build it on, a problem that’s helped keep the project from coming to fruition for quite some time now.
Coaches. Student-athletes. The county school board. Town council members. The Eagles’ Quarterback Club president. Parents proudly decked out in “Got a track? We don’t” T-shirts. There’s no lack of support from nearly every avenue of the Vinemont community, but unfortunately for everyone involved, the foundation of a track can’t be built on support alone.
“There’s not a soul against it that I know of,” Vinemont school board representative Randy Hasenbein said. “We’re all just at a stalemate because you don’t know what to do because you don’t have the property.”
In a perfect world, the eventual location of the track would be somewhere on the Eagles’ relatively small campus. That could be why the Cullman County Board of Education and Vinemont representatives have been exploring the purchase of a parcel behind the main softball field.
The location, which is on Patton Drive right off Highway 31, does come with a rather large downside, however — there’s a residential home sitting on it. The good news? The house is for sale. The bad? Buying the space would likely be cost prohibitive, especially considering the additional money it would take to demolish a perfectly good residence to clear the land for a track.
Of course, there’s always the chance a buyer could acquire the home and move it, but that’s far from a given — or ideal for any prospective owners.
“If that was a vacant piece of land right there, I really think the school system would be a lot more interested in taking a look at purchasing it,” Hasenbein said. “You wouldn’t be looking at nearly as much of an expense.”
But here’s the kicker. Even if all the hurdles of this given scenario are ever cleared, there would still be one massive monkey wrench holding up the plan — the area doesn’t appear to be big enough to house a full-sized track, just one large enough to use as a practice facility. Plus, it would require the remodification of the softball fields, which would only add more labor, more money and more problems into the mix.
“I’m just not sure we’d still have what we want. What I would like to see is if you’re going to ride the train, let’s ride the fast train,” Hasenbein said. “Let’s have something where they can hold meets. The kids deserve a track where they can practice and compete.”
The most plausible place for that scenario to play out lies slightly north at the football field, which could be remodeled to include a full-functioning track similar to the one at Cullman County counterpart Cold Springs High. Yet, just like almost every solution that’s been brought to the table, there are a few flaws standing in the way.
First of all, the addition would be expensive. Second, it would call for cutting into the seats on both sides of the field so the track could feature a preferred eight lanes and corners that aren’t too tight for runners to maneuver.
As Hasenbein pointed out, though, seating is already at a premium at Mark Smothers Stadium, with many spectators having no choice but to line the somewhat-steep banks for Friday-night home games during the fall.
The plan isn’t all bad, though. The school wouldn’t have to start from scratch. It would already have functioning concessions, bathrooms, lights and a press box at the ready. And the seats currently only run between the 35-yard lines, leaving plenty of room for expansion down the sidelines.
Still, the funds involved in such a major contstruction project would pile up in a hurry, leading Cullman County Board of Education Superintendent Billy Coleman to deem it “cost prohibitive” and “not a good option.”
“Money is a problem. We really don’t have it,” he said. “And even if we had the money in hand to build a track, we couldn’t do it. We don’t have the property, and I don’t know the solution.”
Other than permanently closing High School Road — a proposal Hasenbein said much of the community has opposed since it was brought up during the construction of the middle school — plowing it up and combining the extra space with the recently acquired corner lot and football practice field to make room for a small-scale track facility, the Eagles are practically out of options that involve their own campus.
Hasenbein isn’t too surprised by the site’s landlock considering its history, however. The school system initially only purchased the land the high school sits on today before adding the space across the street for the middle school and softball fields.
“This has been going on for years, just piecing little pieces together as time goes on,” Hasenbein said. “I guess in hindsight, if they would’ve built the middle school separate in a different area, it might’ve been the better thing to do because we’re out of land. We have nowhere to go. It’s one of the reasons the middle school is two stories.”
Heading off-campus — which presents an entirely separate set of challenges — Vinemont High’s best bet for a track would be as an addition to the town’s shiny new sports complex.
After more than a decade filled with research, blueprints, the acquisition of enough funds to build the facility without borrowing a single cent and plenty of patience, mayor Melba Patton and her trusty town council unveiled the facility to the public in April. Right now, it features three completed ballfields, two that are braided and sowed, a three-story tower and 240 parking spaces.
Patton said the next items on her agenda for the complex involve adding another field and installing a turn lane to make the destination more easily accessible.
Past that pair of priorities, the mayor said the council is in the “discussion stage” of building a full-size track on the leftover space of the 32.5-acre plot purchased for the sports complex. That verbage certainly indicates there are no guarantees, but Patton did say talks have progressed far enough for the council to hire an engineer to draw up a plan.
“There are five members and myself. We open discussion whenever we bring something up, and I kind of like that because everybody has a chance to speak and give their opinion. It seems to work well for us,” the mayor said. “I think when you try to help a community, they in turn stand behind you and try to help in whatever way they can. And my council is doing that very well.”
One point Patton made very clear, however, was that Vinemont has not and will not start taking on credit for the sake of development while she’s in office. The stance is fine and dandy for the financial stability of the town but not so much for the folks who would like to see a track constructed sooner rather than later.
But there is a middle ground for both sides. According to Hasenbein, money from state representatives, senators, other legislators or grants is much more readily available for public projects rather than ones planned soley by educational entities.
Combine those potential resources with the funds Eagle track supporters continue to bring in through donations, and the thought of a track starting to take shape sometime in the next couple of years isn’t entirely out of the question.
“I think it would happen pretty quick if we got the land situation figured out,” Hasenbein said. “I know the good folks of Vinemont well enough they’re willing to roll up their sleeves and work hard to build something. They love their athletics and sports.”
Go ahead and start the broken record because, just like its predecessors, this plan presents a couple of predicaments, too.
Hasenbein said some citizens are concerned about the potential danger of transporting the student-athletes from Vinemont High to a proposed location like the town’s sports complex. According to Google Maps, the distance between the two is 1.1 miles.
Also, if the Eagles do ever get a track, they’d obviously rather have one built exclusively for their use and no one else’s. Without a single flawless option yet to be offered, though, Hasenbein conceded all parties might have to end up compromising a little bit for the greater good of the cause.
“Hey, that would be better than not having one at all,” the representative said to the thought of a publicly owned facility. “Sometimes you just have to take where you’re at and what you’ve got and do the best you can with it.”
If not for the program’s high participation rate and steady success over the years, the lack of a track wouldn’t even be that hot of a topic in the tiny town of Vinemont. The Eagles regularly contend at Cullman County Championship meets — their boys won the 2013 title behind co-MVP efforts by Tyler Boland and T.J. Steele — and, barring injuries, have a good shot at competing for a Class 3A boys state title in 2014.
One key returner next spring will be Hayden Shutt. Without a track facility to call his own, the pole vaulter was only able to fit in 11 career practices before this year’s state meet. That disadvantage didn’t appear to matter one bit, though, as Shutt pulled out the title with a gritty 11-foot clearance in the rain.
It’s situations like those that have coach Robin Netherton constantly searching tooth and nail for a solution to Vinemont High’s track issue. He wants a facility his student-athletes can be proud of as much as anybody, but even Netherton acknowledged how difficult that goal is to achieve considering the school’s and town’s limited availability of land.
In the meantime, the coach is working on raising as much money as possible and using it to order items like electronic starting systems so they’ll be ready to go once a track is actually up and running. Netherton has no idea when that could ultimately happen, but he won’t stop pushing the topic till it does. His love for the sport, as well as the kids who — track or no track — continue to come out for it year after year, just won’t let him.
“They’re the best. They want to compete and win,” Netherton said. “You just want to give them every opportunity to do that, and it’s kind of hard when you don’t have the facilities.”
The Eagle track and field program will sponsor the “Flying Faster 5K Run” on July 13 at the Cullman Regional Airport. On-site registration will begin at 6 a.m., the 5K will start at 7 a.m. and a 1-mile fun run will follow at 8:30 a.m.
% Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 138 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.