Bennett fields project headed for fall completion

Bennett Fields Site Plan

Drivers and passengers in the 8,000 to 10,000 cars that pass by it every day often ask:

“What the heck are they doing there?”

And those who already know some of the answer to that question invariably ask themselves:

“Why is that taking so long?”

No doubt, Phase 3 of the James M. Bennett High School and Middle School project is the effort to put the icing on a huge public schools cake.

Phase 1 was the construction of a new James M. Bennett High School and the razing of the old building.

Phase 2 was construction of the new Bennett Middle School in Fruitland.

Phase 3 was the massive effort to clean everything up and make it right for the next 50 years: Tear down the old Bennett Middle, grade the field where the high school once stood and build an athletic complex worthy of the $74 million investment in the new high school.

The Phase 3 cost? Roughly $7.6 million, but the work is still obviously ongoing. A lot of that money was consumed in the Bennett Middle excavation and removal.

The public controversy that accompanied the high school’s price tag, then the middle school’s design and cost, then the effort by County Executive Bob Culver to preserve a portion of the old middle school for school board offices, seems to have finally faded.

Supporters say the new track and football complex, currently under construction, will finally take their rightful place alongside all of the other fabulous, state-of-the art, beautifully maintained facilities at the “new,” nearly five-year home of the Clippers.

Bennett High Principal Steve Grudis can’t wait for Phase 3 and his massive campus to be completed.

“As the principal of James M. Bennett High School, I am delighted to see the completion of the Phase III project,” he said.

“This project finalizes the new James M. Bennett High School. I am grateful for the commitment of the Board of Education, the School Building Commission, County Council, City Council and the taxpayers of Wicomico County throughout this long, multi-phase project.”

Building the athletics field is massive and complicated. The dirt and fill piles are a testament to the effort.

Gone are the days of grading a field with a tractor and throwing out some grass seed. Stormwater runoff requirements necessitate construction of retention ponds and sophisticated drainage. The eight-lane track must be built to precise standards. The football complex has to be built to accommodate athletes and visiting crowds of fans.

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It will all be completed in time for use by the fall sports programs this year.

“Our athletic department will be able to offer students a complete track and field program,” Grudis said. “We will have an eight-lane competition track and will be able to host track meets once again. We look forward to the growth of our track program with our new facilities.

“The competition fields will be fan friendly, with bleachers and scoreboards on the competition fields and practice fields that are well groomed and safe.”

For decades, anyone attending an athletic event on the west side of the complex has had to walk around a succession of fences, and then locate the booster parents collecting entrance fees at a makeshift card table.

Now, said Grudis, “JMB fans and visitors will enter the complex in front of a building that will hold a ticket booth, concession stand and public restrooms.”

The track is the centerpiece of the remaining work. Baseball and softball fields, tennis courts and a lacrosse and soccer field were built in Phase 1.

Bennett’s track has been inadequate for years, so the track at County Stadium at Wicomico High School has been host to any significant track event.

“The completion of this track will offer the ability for Wicomico County and James M. Bennett to host larger track events,” said Bryan Ashby, supervisor of athletics.

“Currently there is no track in the county that is large enough to host regional events. With a larger facility than the six-lane track at Wicomico County Stadium, events can be run more efficiently, and we’ll have the opportunity to bring teams into Wicomico County to compete.”

Ashby also said that with the numbers of student athletes at James M. Bennett, the completion of Phase 3 will allow students to practice on a number of practice fields while preserving the competition fields for strictly for games.

JMB has historically had fewer athletic facilities than its population merited, but the school has been particularly short of space since about 2008, he said, when the construction of the replacement high school took up even more of the property.

It wasn’t until last June that the school board executed the final contracts on Phase 3.

Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. was named the overseer contractor, with several alternatives still to be considered.

One aspect still undermined is acreage that was originally reserved for possible sale. One vision suggested that land fronting busy, commerce-oriented South Division Street be sold for a possible strip shopping center or other business purpose.

Superintendent John Fredericksen had advocated such a move in public meetings, but school officials have recently been silent on that option.

“The whole property will remain as James M. Bennett High School for now, pending future plans,” said schools spokesperson Tracy Sahler.

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