The young Orange Beach City School System celebrated a generational step forward on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023 with the groundbreaking ceremony for a state-of-the-art athletic complex.
Speaking to a packed house at the Orange Beach Performing Arts Center amid city, school and state officials and hundreds of Orange Beach students, Superintendent Randy Wilkes said everyone there may be witnessing a once-in-a-lifetime event.
“It is an excellent day in the young history of Orange Beach City Schools for it’s rare that a school system of any age has the opportunity to break ground on a new $46 million facility,” Wilkes said.
After individually thanking and recognizing all of the Orange Beach Board of Education members (President Randy McKinney, Vice President Dr. Nelson Bauer, Lisa Nix, Shannon Robinson, and Robert Stuart) and then Mayor Tony Kennon and the City Council (Chairman Pro-tem Jeff Boyd, Joni Blalock, Jerry Johnson, Annette Mitchell and Jeff Silvers), Wilkes explained how the day came to be.
“We can celebrate today because of the commitment of these 11 people that I’ve just introduced,” Wilkes said. “It was on October 10th that the board unanimously voted to accept the bid from Bear Construction and on October 17th that the City Council unanimously voted to fund the construction. These two groups, collectively, have demonstrated their commitment to bettering the educational experience. In addition to the new construction, it should be noted that the commitment of the city to this school system is not a new endeavor. There is not enough time today to discuss matters dating back to 2014, perhaps even farther, other than the obvious, breaking away and purchasing two schools. Members of this council and the mayor are responsible for the elementary school's new cafeteria, the library and classrooms. The addition of artificial turf to the softball, baseball and soccer/football fields. The baseball and softball batting facilities and locker rooms. And they have done all of this in the last 18 months. Also, this council and mayor are responsible for adding the Performing Arts Center that we are enjoying today. And they did so on this campus in 2021.”
Wilkes went on to recognize other officials in attendance, including City Administrator Ford Handley, and State Sen. Chris Elliott and State Rep. Frances Holk-Jones, who helped support $5 million in state funds for the project. Then he touched on the architects, engineers and the general contracting companies: McCollough Architecture, Davis Architects, Sawgrass Engineering and Bear Construction.
“Students, your being here today is most intentional for at least four reasons,” Wilkes said. “First, I wanted you to see firsthand those responsible for this project and I want you to be able to when you see them in public give them an earnest thanks. Secondly, I want you to develop a greater and deeper understanding of this facility and the commitment that others are making toward you so that one day when you’re given the chance to sit on this stage and make a difference, you’ll seize that opportunity to make life better for others leaving a lasting impression and creating a lasting legacy.
“There are countless high demand, high wage jobs and careers associated with this project and I’ve only introduced you to a few today. You’ve not seen or heard of the designers, the accountants, the lawyers, the mechanical and electrical engineers, the masons, the welders, the electricians, the plumbers and the many others who are necessary for this type of construction.
“And the last reason for your presence here today, so that you will understand and that you will share with others: Edification lends itself to multiplication. I want you to tell our story. Tell the good news about our school system and the difference that it is making in shaping your future and the future of our community.”
Following a slideshow presentation, Superintendent Wilkes highlighted, in detail, all of the amenities associated with the athletic complex on the roughly 9-acre site next to the Performing Art Center, including:
- A competition gymnasium, seating 1,200, with a 94-foot-long court and center-hung video boards.
- A 150-foot-by-200-foot multi-sport pavilion with a 60-foot apex, and 60 yards of artificial turf
- A Kinesiology and Exercise Science Building with an 80-seat theatre-style space that can be used as two classrooms, among many other amenities
- An eight-lane track encircling the turfed soccer/football field and containing a high jump, long jump, pole vault, javelin, and discus areas
- Soccer/football ﬁelds with grandstands, seating 3,500, and a state-of-the-art Jumbo-Tron
- And other support facilities, including separate locker rooms for all athletic teams
School Board President Randy McKinney followed Wilkes' rundown of the facility by recognizing his board and the City Council for all of its work and unanimous approval of the complex.
“Now, I’m going to be honest with you,” McKinney said. “It was easier for the board to vote unanimously to do this project than it was for the City Council to vote unanimously to do this project. And we realize that. And there’s a reason. Some of you may be involved with politics now and some of you may not. But politics is an interesting thing. We are not an elected board so we can look at the information and make a decision based on what we think we should do. A City Council is an elected body and they actually have to work with, I guess, 8,000 constituents in this city now. And so it’s more difficult because there are 8,000 different opinions about what you should or should not do and in order to try to make sure that they do the right thing. There’s a lot of angst, there’s a lot of debate, there’s a lot of discussion and there’s a lot of factual information that they have to get together. And then you have to decide how you’re going to vote on that and I truly want to thank you, City Council, that you voted to affirmatively do that. And I want you to know that we realize how difficult that task was and how difficult that decision was to come to because it’s a commitment of a lot of money. When you spend this kind of money, it’s not an easy process to go through to get to that point to say yes. So thank you from the bottom of our hearts. We appreciate what you’ve done and we appreciate the legacy that you planted that will be here for years to come and generations to come.”
McKinney said it was a vote for the next several generations with 100-year facilities.
Speaking directly to the students, McKinney gave his pragmatic assessment that while the project is pegged to be completed in 18 months, he said it will be more likely 24 months.
“So to the 11th and 12th graders, I’m sorry, you will not get to use it the way your other fellow classmates will get to use it,” McKinney said. “But you’re part of that planting, you’re part of being here and you’re part of that need. To the other people that will get to use it and to everyone else, I want you to think of the responsibility that you may have as a student in this whole process because it’s easy to sit there as a passive participant to think, ‘Oh, look what this city has done for me. They have provided me with a great building over here to go to school in. They provided a great PAC building here for us to meet in. They are going to build us a great athletic facility for us to play in. So what responsibility do you have in that?' I will tell you what we would request as a board. We would request your best effort. We would request your best effort in studying, in athletics and whatever you do. That’s what we would request from you because this facility is built for you. Don’t be passive about it, be proactive about it because we want you to have the opportunity when you graduate from this school to have choices. Your choices to go to college, your choices to go to trade school, your choices to start your own company, whatever your choices are, we want you to be prepared as well as you can be prepared. And your teachers are doing the best to help you in that effort and we just want you to continue to put forth that effort because this is for you.”
Mayor Tony Kennon then took the podium and going a little “off script,” as he says, he riled up the crowd with a “Roll Tide!” There was a mixed reaction with some hollers of “War Eagle” in the audience.
Mayor Kennon then took a moment to ask the band to stand up on stage as they were seated behind officials.
“Thank you. In my day the National Anthem was something special and today it’s been under attack,” Mayor Kennon said. “But when I hear the National Anthem played with pride and dedication, and the work they put in to achieve that level, it gives me the chill bumps. It makes me want to put my helmet back on and line up for kick off. So I really do appreciate the hard work.”
Leading off with the theme that would also be noted by Sen. Elliott, “To whom much is given, much is expected,” Mayor Kennon added, “the City of Orange Beach has been given a bunch and we’re stewards of that money.”
“It’s our decisions of where that money goes and what the effects on our community are,” Mayor Kennon said. “And it’s hard sometimes. As Mr. McKinney alluded to, it was very difficult. To spend $46 million, not many cities can do that. Not many cities twice the size of Orange Beach can do that but we can. And I want to thank the council for their vision because three years ago they had this vision. Covid got in the way and delayed us but they made it happen and the school board followed and administration. So we know that 80 percent of you will be able to use this building in some capacity and we know that any young man, young woman involved in any type of extracurricular activity makes a better student, makes a better citizen. And you know our goals. Our goal is excellence and that means as a student and as a citizen once you leave. The athletic complex is the final piece of that puzzle in my mind. It was needed. It was a critical piece but it’s no more important than any other piece. We know that this art center was built because we see the arts as just important as athletics. And we want to develop the arts like we want to develop athletics. But arts and athletics, community service and all that goes with it, is the foundation by which we get to the pinnacle. And the pinnacle is excellence in academics.
“So, guys, I appreciate and hope you enjoy these facilities but the expectations of your academic success is great and we expect excellence because excellence is an attitude. It just doesn’t happen, it happens because you make it happen. So I’m asking you, dedicate yourselves to the books because that’s what is going to carry you through life, whether it be in the trades or whether it be in a college degree, whatever it might be but use our extracurriculars to help develop those skills to make you a better student and a better citizen and more of a success.”
Sen. Elliott told the Orange Beach students that they are “without a doubt the luckiest kids in the state of Alabama.”
“You live in paradise and you have every single resource you could imagine and then some,” Elliott said. “You are the envy of every kid in this state because you have everything you could hope for. And so the theme here today is one of encouragement and excitement but it is also one of expectation. The rest is up to you guys. It’s up to y’all to achieve. You’ve got all the tools, you’ve got all of the resources you could possibly want, it is absolutely top of the line. People have stretched and they have pushed and they have leveraged and they are doing everything they can to invest in you. Show them the respect by giving your best back to them and back to this community. It is worth saying one more time, thank you to the City Council and to this board.
“It is my job as your senator and Rep. Holk-Jones' job as your representative to make sure that we get our share or more of funding back from Montgomery and I can promise you that she and I are working tirelessly to back up the great elected officials here in Orange Beach. We are proud to represent you. We are proud of you. Go Makos!”
Rep. Holk-Jones capped off the ceremony by putting the day in perspective. She recalled her days in school in Foley, when her best friend from Bear Point would be bussed up and that stayed true through high school. One bus, covering Orange Beach and Gulf Shores, taking students to the nearest schools in Foley.
“I would say you have come a long way to have now 1,250 students just in this wonderful school system that you have here in Orange Beach,” Holk-Jones said. “Congratulations. But also to the Lady Makos Softball Team. Did you see the size of that trophy case? I'm not sure it’s going to be big enough by the time the facility is built. Y’all are already making a name for yourselves statewide. To the other athletes, scholars, you are doing such a wonderful job. It has been said before - to the people in the audience and the people on the stage - team, together everyone achieves more. This is a wonderful team with wonderful vision and you can be part of that team as we’ve said for generations to come. So congratulations on a very wonderful future.”
The ceremony concluded on a grassy area next to the Performing Arts Center parking lot that will one day be the entrance to the competition gymnasium. Gold shovels in hand, smiles and the dirt flew with a nod to the generations of Makos to come. Go Makos!
(This article was written by Marc D. Anderson, Special Projects Coordinator, City of Orange Beach.)