The buzz: County Stadium's track potential virtually untapped
Six years ago then-ramshackle Durham County Memorial Stadium was on life support.
As if the evident deterioration were not sufficient to argue for razing it, some flooring gave way beneath the feet of a commissioner during a Durham County Board of Commissioners tour to assess the condition of the venerable facility.
Fast forward to last weekend’s 36th annual Russell E. Blunt East Coast Invitational Track Meet and longtime Southern High School track and field coach Frank Davis was delivering an amazing tale of rejuvenation and rebirth of the stadium.
“I try to impress on everybody that this is one of the best facilities in the country now, bar none, for this type of event,” said Davis, president and head coach of the Durham Striders track club, sponsors of the Blunt Invitational.
Davis is not just a believer. He hopes to proselytize community movers and shakers to share the faith that the stadium has strong potential as a destination location for more regional and possibly national track and field events.
The three-day Blunt Invitational drew 49 teams from North Carolina, 22 teams from 10 other states and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and four international teams from Bermuda and Mexico. Praise for the facility and the organizational prowess was everywhere.
Calvin Simons, head coach of the Bermuda Pacers, said his island team has good facilities, but they pale in comparison to Durham County Memorial Stadium, which the county renovated in 2009 at a cost of more than $8 million.
“The Durham Striders do a great job in promoting it and organizing it,” Simons said of the Blunt Invitational, for which his 35 entrants eagerly raised $1,000 each to be able to travel and participate in the long-running, prestigious competition.
“Frank’s been bragging about this facility. It’s the first time I’ve seen it. It’s a great facility,” said Harold “Lefty” Martin of Dayton, Ohio, a 50-year track veteran whose teams have been competing here since 1978 and included his daughter, LaVonna Martin Floreal, an Olympic silver medalist in 1992, and Tonja Buford-Bailey, an Olympic bronze medalist in 1996 and current University of Texas coach.
Martin’s stamp of approval is no small endorsement. He is one of four members of the site evaluation committee for USA Track and Field who approve the locations for the youth organization’s two annual national events. They are the Youth Championships and the larger Junior Olympics, which are being held in Greensboro this week.
“I see all these facilities around the country. This matches up,” said Martin, who worked the Blunt Invitational — held at Duke’s Wallace Wade Stadium until construction forced its move this year — as head referee before heading to Greensboro to officiate the Junior Olympics.
“I have talked to some of the people here,” Martin said. “My suggestion is to try for the youth meet, which right now it’s open for 2015 … Build on that, and then go for the Junior Olympics” and the huge tourism revenue it generates from 9,000 participants and their entourages, Martin said.
Beyond that, “I would like to see the people here put in for the trials for the World Youth Junior Olympics,” Martin said.
“Next year that meet is in China, and the trials are going to have to be somewhere in the South because they are in April and will have to be somewhere where the weather is decent,” he said. “And this is an ideal facility for such an event.”
Aside from being “a beautiful stadium,” Martin said it has many of the requisite attributes and logistics.
“You’ve got dual runways, dual high jumps, plenty of warm-up space, field events are outside the stadium” to avoid hazards, two pole vault areas, and plenty of parking, he said. “This is one of the nicer press boxes I’ve seen.”
A second check-in area for participants would be needed, a second discus and shot-put area, a cage for the hammer throw and an operations trailer from which to run the meet.
“Nothing money can’t take care of. If you’ve got the resources it wouldn’t be a problem” to host a national event, Martin said.
And there are some things money can’t buy.
“One of the things that amazes me, impresses me, is the organization that the Durham Striders have in the fact that he (Davis) gets both alumni, parents, and parents of alumni to come out this one weekend every year to make this meet a success,” Martin said.
“I don’t think there’s any other meet in the country where you get that kind of support of people who come through the program, and that’s one thing that makes this meet a real success,” he said.
Davis said County Stadium — as the venue is commonly known —has a fan advantage over Wallace Wade.
“Durham County Stadium is perfect for a track meet because it’s a lot more intimate,” with the crowd “right on trop of the track, so it’s a different type of atmosphere,” he said.
Davis said a large electronic display board such as the one at Wallace Wade also would be necessary to stage a national event. It would not necessarily need video capability, but would have to be able to display results.
Charlotte and Greensboro have hosted USA national events.
“The difference is those cities have a sports commission or a sports authority that goes after sporting events, and they look at economic impact possibilities for hotel taxes and everything else because that’s what they do, and they contribute to the event,” Davis said.
Durham does not have such an organization, but Davis remains optimistic.
“It’s in the wind to try to establish some kind of sports authority,” he said.