KEY WEST STADIUM DEBATE CONTINUES; SCHOOL BOARD MOVES AHEAD DESPITE PENDING CHANGES

A new concession area behind the first base line at Rex Weech Field has been added to the new stadium plans for Key West High School. CONTRIBUTED

An April 25 discussion of the new Key West High School stadium involved four hours of somewhat contentious back and forth, but was the most productive conversation about the new facility that’s occurred in the past two years of its planning, said several Conch baseball supporters who attended the school board meeting after months of frustration about the lack of baseball amenities in the $20 million stadium plan. 

The football team’s Tommy Roberts Memorial Stadium backs into baseball’s Rex Weech Field, so any construction at the facility affects both teams. While the football team can and has been playing on an alternative field at The Backyard behind the high school, no other baseball fields are large enough for the high school program. Initial plans called for the baseball team, which has won 11 state championships, to cancel its 2023 season — a plan that was entirely unacceptable to coaches, parents and players, many of whom are being recruited by colleges. Construction was postponed until after this current baseball season.

“(Baseball) Coach Ralph (Henriquez) laid out what he wanted in the new stadium years ago, and none of it, until tonight’s newly presented option, was in there,” baseball booster and Key West business owner Jack Niles said at the April 25 meeting. “There has been a disconnect in this process, but finger-pointing gets nothing done here. This open forum tonight is fantastic because we’re connecting the disconnect. We’re spending $20 million on this. We simply want to be involved in the process, with fair and equitable treatment.”

In the end, the board voted unanimously to proceed with the project rather than delay it a year, but only after promising to add a new concession stand and enlarged press box for the baseball team in Phase 1 of construction.

The board approved a guaranteed maximum price for the new stadium, to be built by Ajax Builders, of $19.3 million, but acknowledged that those costs will increase based on the added baseball features.

At one point during the April 25 meeting, school board member John Dick accused the baseball boosters of “changing their minds and doing anything to delay this project. These are discussions that should already have taken place, and I thought that’s what was happening.” Board member Mindy Conn refuted Dick, saying, “I attended many meetings, John, and what baseball was asking for at Rex Weech is exactly the same. What did change was that we decided NOT to do anything with Rex Weech in Phase 1. The problem is not so much that they’re changing what they want. The problem is that what they want wouldn’t happen for eight years.”

The question of sod versus artificial turf on the new field consumed about two hours of the conversation, with Dave Black, a local contractor who has installed turf fields, questioning the estimated construction time frame that says it would take eight months to resurface the field.

“The city just resurfaced four fields at the Clayton Sterling complex in about four months,” Niles said. “And they’re glorious.”

The baseball team’s advocates strongly supported turf fields due to their lower cost of maintenance and the success of the turf infield at Rex Weech Field that is now six or seven years old and in great shape.

The final vote was to proceed with the project, and add amenities requested by baseball supporters to the first phase of construction.

Mandy Miles drops stuff, breaks things and falls down more than any adult should. An award-winning writer, reporter and columnist, she's been stringing words together in Key West since 1998. "Local news is crucial," she says. "It informs and connects a community. It prompts conversation. It gets people involved, holds people accountable. The Keys Weekly takes its responsibility seriously. Our owners are raising families in Key West & Marathon. Our writers live in the communities we cover - Key West, Marathon & the Upper Keys. We respect our readers. We question our leaders. We believe in the Florida Keys community. And we like to have a good time." Mandy's married to a saintly — and handy — fishing captain, and can't imagine living anywhere else.