Clear Eyes, Full Wallets
You know what? The people of Allen don’t care what you think about their structurally unsound, $60 million high school football stadium.
Tom Westerberg would just as soon not answer another question about Allen High School’s Eagle Stadium. “It’s the same thing over and over and over,” the coach of the Allen football team says of the parade of journalists that has interviewed him over the past several months. They want to know about the extraordinary amount of money that was spent on the facility in advance of its 2012 opening. They want to know about the problems that forced the stadium to close this past February. They want to know if he thinks it was all a waste of money and if it breaks his heart to look out his window, with its beautiful, unobstructed view of the pristine, unusable field. He makes time for the reporters, but he doesn’t have a lot to say. “It is what it is,” he offers. “We would love to be here, but we can’t. It’s a disappointment, yes.”
His reticence is understandable. In 2012 Allen made headlines when it opened Eagle Stadium, three years after voters approved a bond that provided $60 million for its construction. The 18,000-seat stadium, which replaced a 36-year-old, 7,000-seat stadium, features a 38-foot-wide high-definition video screen; a massive upper deck; and a gleaming facade, among other amenities that you’d be more likely to find in a college arena. While the price tag pales in comparison with the sort of money a major university would spend, it’s still the most expensive high school football stadium in the country.
The national media jumped on the story immediately. Most of the reaction was cautious (ESPN The Magazine said that the stadium “just makes sense” to people in Allen) or even admiring (Forbes explained how the venue was part of a savvy plan that would turn the growing suburb into more than just “a bedroom community”). But the comments sections that accompanied such articles often had a very different tone. Remarks like “This should be criminal” and “What [do] we expect out of a state that gave us W?” were representative of the anger that was directed toward Allen.
The hubbub eventually died down, and the Allen Eagles seemed to have the last laugh by winning back-to-back state championships in 2012 and 2013. But then people started noticing large cracks in the stadium. Concrete contracts as it dries, and cracks are inevitable, but this was something different—fissures as wide as three quarters of an inch. An inspector hired by the school district found serious structural problems in the press box, retaining walls, concourse, and scoreboard and determined that they needed to be fixed. The facility closed for repairs on February 27.
Suddenly, anyone who was inclined to criticize the Allen community for its extravagance had a fresh reason to do so. “This is what happens when a high school bathes in excess,” one person wrote on a University of North Texas football forum. Another snarked on ESPN.go.com, “There’s a joke to be made here about our architects and engineers being too poorly educated to properly build a stadium because so much of our public funding goes to building stadiums.” The school district, the city, the architect, and the construction company all pointed fingers at one another, and the Eagles announced that they will have to spend the 2014 season, which begins August 29, playing home games in neighboring Plano ISD stadiums. It wasn’t clear anymore who was laughing last.
Still, ask Mike Williams, a local real estate agent whose office is adorned with statues and pictures of eagles, what the town should have done differently, and a laugh is what you’ll get. “I would do the mezzanine a little bit different,” he jokes. “Without cracks.”
Williams is a hard-core Eagles fan—he hasn’t missed a game since before the team won its first state championship, in 2008—but his positivity seems to reflect the general sentiment around Allen. Those cracks in the concrete, the thinking goes, are just some bad luck the town encountered on its road to owning the nicest high school football stadium in the country.
“It was an unfortunate set of circumstances,” says Sharon Mayer, the CEO of the Allen-Fairview Chamber of Commerce. “The people the school district contracted with were reputable companies who have built multiple facilities around the area. It’s sad, but it’s gonna come back, and we’ll have a great facility that will be here for a long time to come.”
Williams thinks that feelings about the stadium have changed even among those who initially opposed it. Though most voters supported the stadium bond, a third did not, and some voiced their opposition on the community forum AllenOnline.com. One declared the stadium a “total waste of taxpayer money driven by the overemphasis on high school sports in Texas.” “It sucks, we have to live with it,” another responded. But Williams believes much of that anger has died down. “I know a lot of the people who voted no on the bond, and at the games we’ll be talking and they’ll say, ‘Boy, I’m glad I didn’t win.’ ”
If anything, the stadium’s troubles have given townspeople even greater motivation to support the team. At the Eagle Designs memorabilia and apparel shop, which sells Eagles clocks, onesies, and laptop sleeves, the staff will steer you to a T-shirt that reads “Road Warriors 2014: Home Is Anywhere Eagle Nation Plays.”
The people of Allen have heard it all at this point, and one thing they’re tired of hearing about is their misplaced priorities. “One guy said that we should have bought sixty million dollars worth of books,” Williams scoffs. “Does he not know that we take care of our school?” For all the scorn heaped on Allen, the town defies the stereotype of the sports-mad Texas burg throwing money at its high school football program to the neglect of everything else. The total amount of the bond that funded the stadium was $119 million, of which $23 million went to pay for the school’s Performing Arts Center (the rest was for the construction of a service center to house and maintain school buses and store cafeteria food).
Allen High School’s Performing Arts Center. (Courtesy of the Allen ISD)
“They spent just as much on the fine arts as they did on the stadium,” Williams says. (His math is off by about $37 million.) “This is not a one-dimensional town. A lot of people come here just for the schools.” The school’s band, for instance, boasts nine hundred students. Allen doesn’t want to give its kids the best football experience they can have—it wants to give its kids the best of everything.
In that way, Allen is very much a new-model Texas suburb. Between 2000 and 2010 the town’s population nearly doubled, from 43,000 to 84,000. Median household income is $95,000 (almost double the national average), and the school isn’t the only place where people like to spend money: the Village at Allen and the Village at Fairview combine for a massive outdoor mall a few blocks away from the high school, with over 150 shops, including a Whole Foods, a Cabela’s, and an iPic Theaters cinema (ticket prices start at $17.50). There are two apartment complexes in the compound, where a seven-hundred-square-foot one-bedroom can run as much as $1,100 a month. There are two dog parks, a hedge maze, and an events center that hosts the Allen Americans minor league hockey team, the Texas Revolution indoor football team, and the North Texas Gun and Knife Show.
There are a lot of towns like this in booming Texas—San Marcos, Frisco, and Cedar Park were, respectively, the first-, second-, and fourth-fastest-growing incorporated areas in the U.S. between 2012 and 2013. All of them are located just outside major cities that are flush with jobs, and for upper-middle-class Texans with families to raise, the appeal of places like these is obvious: you get a lot more space for less money than you do in the city itself, and the schools are grooming the kids to be well-rounded candidates for college who can excel at anything they attempt, whether it’s taking the SATs, playing the trumpet, or edge-rushing the passer on third down.
Steve H. Murdock, the former state demographer and now a professor at Rice, says that this sort of thing is happening all over the country, but more intensely in Texas. “Dallas is showing renewed growth, and suburban areas such as Allen, Plano, and McKinney are showing truly extraordinary growth,” he says. “Some may themselves emerge as additional nodes for demographic and socioeconomic expansion.”
Allen, in other words, may have built the first $60 million high school stadium in the country, but it may not be the last Texas town to do so. (Last year the Houston suburb of Katy narrowly voted down a bond election that would have paid for a $69.5 million stadium.)
For Williams, who moved to Allen in the mid-seventies, it’s been fun watching a one-stoplight town of six thousand turn into a booming suburb. “We were always aggravated that the news media would never say ‘Allen,’ ” he complains. “They would say Plano and McKinney and Sherman and Richardson. But unless something happened right in Allen, Allen was never mentioned. Not even on the weather.” He offers a sly smile and adds, “It sort of got away from that since the stadium was built.”
If getting Allen on the map was the goal of building the stadium, then it was, by any measure, a success. All the attention will bring more people and events to town, and some of them will end up in Eagle Stadium. As will the Allen Eagles, once the repairs are completed.
“It’ll get fixed,” Westerberg says. “We have eight thousand season ticket holders. The whole home side is reserved. Why would you not do it again? If anything, you might do it a little bigger next time.”