Clairton School District’s Neil C. Brown Stadium has been the setting for many football victories in its 93-year history. The teams’ winning ways continued despite its worn-out grass field, crumbling cement, leaky locker rooms and warped wooden bleachers, just some of its major deficiencies.
The Clairton Bears Academic and Athletic Association and the district believe the time has come, finally, to renovate the structure and bring it to a level that its players — high school and five youth leagues who have won scores of championships — deserve.
The CBAAA and the district unveiled at the stadium on Friday preliminary plans in four different phases that include a new turf field, new lighting, new entrance and restroom facilities, and a complete renovation of the bleachers and locker rooms. The cost of the project is estimated at $6.6 million, according to materials provided by Roger Tachoir, president of the CBAAA and a school board member.
To pay for it, the district will seek a $3.5 million bond issue. The quiet phase of fundraising for a another part of the money needed has begun with the CBAAA looking for help from major corporations and foundations, locally and nationally. Now it will launch a drive for alumni, friends and supporters to contribute, too. The goal: Raise enough money — about $1.5 million — that combined with the bond will get the first three phases started soon, hopefully in time for the 2024 football season.
Tachoir said the coach and players want a turf field to replace the grass one that gets torn up each season. Every rainfall creates flooding that adds to the damage in the players’ locker rooms. Cement throughout it continues to deteriorate. The facility does not have working restrooms; the district rents porta-johns instead for students and other game attendees.
The first three phases would correct those deficiencies as well as create a new entrance, renovate the fieldhouse, replace concession stands and a press box, and install new bleachers and new lighting, among other work, at a cost of about $5 million. Phase four, which would finish the project with amenities to the entrance and home side of the field, is estimated at $1.592 million.
Clairton has won 14 WPIAL football titles, which is second all time to Aliquippa’s 19. The Bears have also won four PIAA titles. Their 66-game win streak is a state record.
Tachoir said the last renovation project occurred in 1993, spearheaded by the late George Weber, a CHS alumnus who was then the U.S. Steel Clairton Works plant manager, and the late Pat Risha, who coached the football team and served as high school principal. The company Anthony Crane also assisted. That project brought new wooden bleachers and some minor cement repair work.
Why has the stadium not had a major overhaul or been replaced? The simple answer: money.
It is spelled out in one of the project’s business donation letters: “A national report by EdBuild, “Fault Lines,” lists Clairton as #4 nationally out of 50 poverty segregated districts that border wealthier districts. Furthermore, we are one of the poorest school districts in Allegheny County. Despite our best efforts, we are currently facing financial challenges that are hindering our ability to continue with our important work. Only 20% of our $18 million budget is secured through local taxes. Because our tax base is not growing, we are dependent upon grants and subsidies to maintain our operations and programming.”
Weber and Risha also helped create the CBAAA, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, in 1993, Tachoir said. It has been in existence since but has had limited funds to offer the district and its students. He credited the late Francis Geletko, who served as a school board member and Clairton city official, and his widow, Jill, who taught in the school district, for keeping it going. She is a CBAAA officer.
That board has met and reconfigured, Tachoir said, creating a memorandum of understanding on the project with the district, an important legal step.
This new push started about a year ago, Tachoir said, when head football coach Wayne Wade came to him and explained the NFL Grassroots Grant, which helps high schools across the country install turf fields. And Wade definitely wanted one for his team and the others who use the field, which includes a girls flag football team. That team won the championship in its bracket this year.
“The NFL would match the fundraising efforts up to $250,000,” Tachoir said. “But you had to qualify. They have a rigorous application process. We tried to get it last year, but we weren’t ready with the plan and the details, and they turned us down. They told us to apply next year when you are ready.”
The CBAAA and the school district unveiled just how ready they are, displaying those plans as the high school football team, girls flag football team, band, majorettes and cheerleaders gathered at the stadium for their fall season photo day. Elected officials — including Clairton Mayor Rich Lattanzi, state Sen. Jim Brewster, D-McKeesport, state Rep. Matthew Gergely, D-McKeesport, and school board members came, too.
Lattanzi, Brewster and Gergely told all present that they will do whatever they can to help raise the needed money. Lattanzi, a Clairton grad who was also a football player — “although not a good one” — said, “All these kids here, they are our future. It’s our job to help them with that future. Our kids deserve better.” Gergely added, “This isn’t just for football. Whatever it takes to get the money here in Clairton, you just have to do it. I’ll be a part of it. Let’s get it done sooner rather than later.”
Clairton Superintendent Tamara Allen-Thomas echoed Gergely’s comments. “This [project] is one pathway to our progress,” she said. “This project here is a long time coming. This is just the beginning. … This is not just a school thing. It’s a community thing.”
CORE Architects in Bellevue and DiMarco Construction in Clairton have helped with initial designs and cost estimates at no charge Tachoir said at the news conference, and both have signed agreements with the school district to be hired if the district moves forward.
The school board’s vote on the bond issue has been held up because of the delay on the state budget, which still needs to be finalized. School board President Richard Livingston said at the news conference, though, that project votes to date have passed 9-0.
The contingency plan if construction is not complete before the start of the 2024 season is to have the team play games at other high school stadiums.
Until the unveiling Friday, the only people who have seen the project’s drawings have been the school board and some potential corporate donors.
“So the school board reaction was, ‘Oh, this is great. We really need this. This is wonderful. [But] how are we going to pay for it? We can’t afford it,’ ” Tachoir said. “[So] we spent two or three board meetings with CORE and DiMarco to answer [their] questions. The board and administration like it. Everyone on the board and administration knows we need this. That stadium is 93 years old, and it is crumbling.”
Wade knows the reality, too, of the stadium’s state and the financial situation.
“I guess you can say there’s a little bit of a mixed message because of the price of the project,” he said. “How can we get it accomplished? Do we have the money? Is it needed? For sure, but we have to make sure it’s feasible for the city.”
He believes a lot of people are looking forward to it already. “Just like Aliquippa. Just like South Allegheny. Just like Elizabeth Forward. Just like West Mifflin. Just like Thomas Jefferson,” Wade said. “People are excited about it in that way, but it just has to be feasible. We don’t want the citizens in the community to see their taxes go way up.”
Tachoir said the bond issue will result in an annual 2-mill tax increase. It will cost most residents $56 annually, with businesses and industry in the town paying more.
“One mill brings in $1 million,” he said. “We have to cover this bond issue. It’s a 20-year payment, [and] the tax increases will] cover that. You can’t [legally] have unfunded debt.”
Like Tachoir, Wade knows the renovations have been needed for the past 15 to 20 years. He played for Clairton from 1987 to 1990 and said the stadium still looks the same. He has 30 players on the team this season, including five seniors.
“We’ve talked about it for the last four or five years,” he said. “We’ve tried to get everybody on board. There’s been a buzz in our community for years. We just need to make sure we’re doing it the right way.”
Brad Everett, PUP sports writer, contributed to this story.