There are many sights along Eugene’s Adidas Amazon Trail: Amazon Creek wanders parallel to it; it harbors South Eugene High School’s football and softball fields; the dense Ash Forest springs up along Amazon Parkway and expands several blocks southward from 24th Avenue. A concrete footbridge rises up and over the serpentine Amazon Parkway so that pedestrians may cross safely from one side of the street to the other. It’s a lively area frequented by student athletes, bikers and joggers alike.
But the ballpark on the other side of that bridge, once a symbol of Eugene’s community heritage, lies forgotten.
Civic Stadium, a relic of a simpler time, has seen millions of people across several generations attend the events within its gates.
Built in 1938, Civic featured local lumber mill baseball teams that competed for dominance. The park once hosted South Eugene High School‘s football, baseball and soccer games; it hosted golf tournaments, concerts, graduations, rodeo events and even funerals.
The Eugene Larks called the park home in the 1950s, replaced in 1969 by the Eugene Emeralds.
Today Civic Stadium lies in a state of disrepair. A chain link fence surrounds the wooden structure’s perimeter, allowing passersby only parking lot access and an outsider’s gaze at the place that was once the hub of community activity.
Tall grass covers the infield and outfield and creeps out behind the home run wall. The grounds outside the park are cracked and weathered, unkempt and weedy. It is a lonely landmark save for the spring, when it’s used by South Eugene’s baseball team. The ticket office and management buildings are faded with age, windows boarded up but offering glimpses of their storage spaces that were once functioning headquarters.
The Eugene 4J School District, the park’s owner since 1938, has decided that the yearly maintenance cost of $50,000 is too high, and considers the stadium to be surplus property lacking educational utility. Selling the property would bring badly-needed money into the academic budget.
Dennis Hebert, active President and a founding member of the non-profit Save Civic Stadium organization, agrees that the property requires serious renovation.
“If anybody comes in, they’re going to need a totally new infrastructure for water and sewer and everything else – it’s going to be a lot of work, and 4J wants to get out from under it for right now.”
“The problem,” insists Bernie Corrigan, Co-Chair of Friendly Area Neighbors (FAN), “is that it’s a wooden structure in a wet climate. Regular maintenance is needed, but the school district has not done that.”
Greg Giesy, a Eugene native and FAN board member who worked as a manager for the South Eugene football program while attending the school, finds 4J’s decision foolhardy.
“The school district will have to put in new lights and bleachers into the field behind the school if Civic Stadium is removed or sold … it’s really a waste. It doesn’t necessarily need a $70 million renovation – someone could get a lot of volunteers.”
In an interview with Eugene’s KVAL News, 4J Facilities Manager John Lauch gives the park a “$10 million price tag.” Signs at the parking lot entrance and on the back of the grandstands read FOR SALE LEASE OR TRADE.
“It’s not needed anymore,” says Kerry Delf, the district’s Communications Coordinator, who tells KVAL that the money collected from selling the park would be used for future properties, but could be put toward other more important needs like funding jobs for teachers.
The district has begun to accept Requests for Proposals (applications detailing the intended use of the ballpark and the property as a whole) from interested parties. The school board will give the most consideration to those proposals that appeal to the top factors on the priorities list that includes “the community impact of the proposed use of the stadium property.”
“Allowing requests for proposals (due by February 1 of 2011) is a better idea than putting the stadium on the market,” Delf says. “It is not the place of a school district to maintain an aging stadium – its commitment is to the students and taxpayers in the community.”
The district would, however, be glad to see Civic Stadium continue as a recreational facility.
Bend-based sports consultant Marshall Glickman, CEO of Bend-based G2 Strategic, worked with Save Civic to come up with ideas for how the stadium can best be put to use.
“Eugene needs to attract a professional soccer team,” Glickman tells the Register-Guard, “and voters would need to approve a hefty bond measure.”
Such a bond measure for the renovation would need to be put on a ballot and passed, in a time when money is extremely tight.
Mayor Kitty Piercy recalls that a coalition of interests tried to get the University of Oregon to renovate and use Civic, but the University declined.
Delf reports that as of December 3 no party has yet submitted a request, but the Eugene Family YMCA, across South Eugene High School from Civic Stadium, has a noted interest.
The Y seeks to remove the stadium and build a brand new recreational facility in its place.
“We are committed to working closely with Save Civic Stadium leaders to preserve the spirit, history and physical remnants of Civic Stadium, integrating these elements into the new Y’s design, theme and structure,” reads its Fall 2010 Newsletter.
The YMCA’s website states that [its Board of Directors] has resolved that its search has been exhausted and that the Civic site represents the last opportunity.
“We’ve looked for about six years,” notes YMCA President Dave Perez. “We need four to five acres for the new facility. There isn’t that kind of acreage anywhere else, and we want to stay in South Eugene.”
The project would be funded “either through capital campaign efforts or through a group of private investors who enter into a management agreement with the YMCA.
If the wish is indeed granted, the new YMCA building would include an “aquatic center, wellness center, meeting spaces and classrooms, group exercise rooms, child care facilities and family recreational spaces designed to serve a diverse population,” for an estimated capital construction cost “in the range of $15-18 million.”
The Y would replace the old Emeralds ticket office with the new YMCA facility, which would extend into Civic Stadium’s existing parking lot, says YMCA President Dave Perez in a KVAL interview.
An extra grandstand would be built on the east side of the site, next to the new building, adding about 6,000 seats. The stadium’s space could be used for KidSports and Eugene School District sports teams. The park could also become the new home of a United Soccer Leagues First Division team, and host concerts and family events in a 2,500-4,500 seat range.
The trouble with this plan is that the complex would not make enough money to cover the costs of stadium renovation.
Perez says that the field will simply have to go if there is no money to maintain it.
Hebert and Save Civic Stadium’s mission is to find a buyer or a group with sufficient funds to leave the stadium just as it is and instead renovate and preserve its community utility. He insists that the school district’s decision is very short-sighted and that the stadium is still very useful.
“We feel that Civic Stadium could have been quite an asset for education and for the community as it stood, in that it could have the shop kids doing rebuilding of it; they could have drafting students drafting designs and everything with it. They can create a little historical museum with Civic Stadium in it that could be something dealing with history – there are just so many avenues that they could have gone down.”
Bob and Eileen Beban, the Emeralds’ former President / General Manager and Accountant, respectively, are two residents in masses that would be sorry to see the stadium go.
“There was a huge sense of community,” Eileen reminisces. “There were no cell phones and hardly any computers; people would sit back and see the incredible harvest moon coming over the hill behind center field.”
Corrigan predicts that the community “will be sorry 50 years from now” if the stadium is gone.
For now, Civic Stadium’s future is in doubt.
But Hebert keeps hope alive.
“Right now we’re not fighting at the endgame – we’ve still got two months left. You never can tell – that’s why you’ve got to keep talking it up, you’ve got to keep the spirit alive, because you may talk to that person who knows somebody who can help you out.”
The History of Civic Stadium
Former University of Oregon student Natalie Perrin created a Civic Stadium historic preservation pitch in 2007 that succeeded in getting the park on the National Historic Register.
Some interesting facts from the pitch include:
The park’s components:
- Metal riser seats
- Two dugouts
- Two bus barns (one has since been prepared for demolition)
- Heating Plant
- Maintenance Office
- Garage and Living Quarters
- Public restrooms (added circa 1969)
- Ticket booths
- Six concession stands
- The Eugene High School marching band was on hand to commemorate the stadium’s grand opening on October 22, 1938
- The first athletic event within Civic’s gates was the annual football rivalry match between Eugene High and Corvallis High – the game ended in a rainy 0-0 tie
- The L-shaped wooden grandstand was designed by University of Oregon alumnus Graham Braden Smith
- The stadium is built of Douglas Fir
- Civic resembles Hoquiam Stadium, of the same age, in the state of Washington
The document’s conclusion pays tribute to the park’s grandeur and glory days.
The sight of the hand-turned scoreboard, the feel of the old wooden grandstand, and the smell of the grass of the field transport people back to a time when war and financial woes could be escaped from, if only for a moment, at the ball park.
Behind the Scenes with Dennis Hebert
I spoke with Hebert for over an hour about Save Civic’s origins, the stadium’s significance, and what can still be done to preserve it.
Hebert and his family moved to south Eugene from Arizona when he found a carpenter job in 1987. He discovered Civic Stadium and found himself going to 25 to 30 ‘Ems games a year.
He knew at least 100 people sitting around him, many of whom would save him a seat.
He watched kids grow up at Civic Stadium – it was a great place for “getting away from it all.”
“It’s one of those things that when there’s the roar of the crowd, you can hear it – the sounds really travel.”
“It connects [people] to a time when they were young and aspiring to play baseball – they can go there and get into the game and be in the moment – that’s part of Civic Stadium – you’re in the moment, and that was one of the best experiences that anyone can have.”
When did Save Civic Stadium take off?
“It got kicked around in 2006, when the 4J School District put Civic Stadium on its Surplus Property list. Then, in 2007 when the city and 4J went to court and decided that there were no deed restrictions as far as property being recreational-use only, it was in the summer that we set up a table in front of the main entrance to Civic Stadium and started talking to people and started collecting signatures in support of saving Civic Stadium.”
How did you come to be involved in it? Were you the X-factor? Who had the idea first?
“In the summer of 2006, a friend of mine by the name of Chip Craft was going around with a clipboard, collecting signatures inside the park at the games. He wasn’t making a lot of headway, but he was collecting signatures like that. That’s where we got together and got it going as far as what we thought might happen, and when we saw that there was no deed restriction, we saw that there was a definite threat that 4J would sell the property, so at that time he and I got together and said ‘You know, we have to do something, so let’s start trying to build some impetus and get the people’s movement going’ … That’s when it became official, I guess you could say.”
Is there a concrete list of reasons for saving the stadium?
“I think the reasons for it to be saved are partially self-evident – number one, now especially since it’s on the National Historic Register.”
“Another one is that it was built in 1938 as part of the Works Progress Administration Project here in Lane County: it was an effort by the Chamber of Commerce, the school district, the City of Eugene and the citizens of Eugene to realize a dream that they needed a stadium for sporting events, and they all got together in the depth of the Depression and actually voted for a bond measure to help pay the back taxes on the property so that it could be built.”
“It’s one of the last wooden grandstands left in the country – it is now probably now the seventh-or-eighth-oldest stadium in the United States.”
“There has been such a passion for the stadium ever since when, in that from 1938 to 1969, South Eugene (at that time Eugene High) played football there, so everybody who played football did it right there in Civic Stadium. They walked graduation there until 1984, so everybody who graduated had a feel of it. South Eugene has played baseball there even this past year – the baseball team has always played there.”
“Big feelings from Cascade League, minor league baseball which was a local and independent baseball league that had teams from hardware stores, department stores, sawmills, and all of those kinds of things – back then, every small town in America had three, four, five teams playing, and they’d play Creswell, Cottage Grove, Junction City, Albany, Corvallis, plus here in town there were probably a half dozen teams at least – it was a big, big thing.”
“Before that, we’ve heard accounts of having softball games there and hardball games there in the early ‘40s … we got in touch with this guy by the name of Graden Lewis, whose father was the original caretaker for it, so he had stories to tell about going into the stadium’s bleachers and trying to glean coins from people’s pockets and stuff like that.”
“The ‘Ems were there until 2009 – at the time, over five million people attended games there, so there was a passion for that. A lot of kids grew up going to games there, and continue to take their kids there, so there is a very strong tradition – as far as family and people and friends, the first thing they would do was come to the stadium in the summertime and see an ‘Ems game.”
“Besides that, it’s just a potential open space, it has potential for park space, and it has potential for other field sports, they continue having baseball and soccer – South Eugene has been using it, and they still used it this fall for soccer practices – there’s just a huge reason to keep it!”
“It’s mostly within the depth of the community in that it’s something that’s part of the heritage of the community, and here in Eugene because of downtown destroying most of the downtown historical buildings with urban renewal in the ‘70s, you see now how important these buildings are to the community and, actually, what we call the social fabric of Eugene, because with Civic Stadium not there, it creates a hole in what people used to do every summer within society within Eugene – it was always part of it on summer evenings to go to ‘Ems games. There’s a lot of warmth for the Ems and baseball, but at the same time there are also lots of people who used to go there because something was going on at Civic Stadium – you go there, it’s a great place to spend a summer’s evening with sitting down, drinking a beer and just talking to friends at the game, or you’re watching the game and the kids are playing in the kids zone – people would walk down from the Friendly area just because Civic was there!”
“In 2007, 2008, 2009, I was out in front of the gate every game – I talked to tens of thousands of people, and the stories are that people from all over the world, who came to visit somebody, or who were passing through Eugene, heard about this great old stadium that had minor league baseball there – it’s true-grit baseball. You could pass time, you could get in for five bucks a ticket and they still had two-dollar hot dogs, three-dollar beer – it was very affordable, it was fun, it was nostalgic. There are people who remember how when they were kids, they used to have a ballpark like that when they were growing up in their home town but it’s long gone, so it’s such an experience, such a setting – it was something to them, like ‘wow, this is out of a dream – it’s fantastic that you still have this stadium.”
Why is 4J selling the stadium?
“They’re financially strapped. It collected rent while Ems were there, but now no money comes from it.”
“The property has become “a pit that they have to throw money into – as you know, they’re $30 million short of balancing their budget, so they’ve got to find some money somewhere.”
“We feel that Civic Stadium could have been quite an asset for education and for the community as it stood, in that it could have the Shop kids doing rebuilding of it; they could have Drafting students drafting designs and everything with it. They can create a little historical museum with Civic Stadium in it that could be something dealing with history, would be dealing with local subjects, how government worked in the WPA Project, how these things happened – there are just so many avenues that they could have gone down, and made it a self-sustaining place, but they chose not to – they saw it as a stadium that had no educational purpose. We don’t understand their logic, but that’s the way it was.”
So you feel it’s short-sighted, like they’re only thinking about business instead of the whole majesty of it?
“Yes. Since it’s right next to South Eugene High, it’s in the sports complex of Amazon Park, where you have softball fields and running tracks, and originally that property was deeded to them for one dollar, by the people of Eugene. We feel that they have a responsibility to give it back for a more reasonable amount of money than millions of dollars, because we feel that, if needed, we could raise the money to restore the stadium, and we could get some viability and sustainability to some type of residence so that we keep the stadium there, and things happening in South Eugene could continue to happen there – the community could continue to use it, and it would be a living history museum right there, just as it stands.”
“We haven’t started raising money because if we don’t own it, we can’t do anything to it.”
“There is a lot you can do to Civic Stadium to bring it up to modern standards and still keep its historic status. It’s going to be about hitting the right group of people who have the money, who have a passion for the property and who could have a living legacy here at Civic Stadium if they were the ones to do it.”
Save Civic Stadium is also interested in getting the city to buy the stadium and deciding what to do with the property – maybe part of it could be a park and part of it could be a private development:
“What could go on there is just limited to your imagination – whatever you have in it, people will go to it because it’s Civic Stadium and it’s there.”
“It’s a perfect location – it’s right in between midtown and Southtowne, it’s a large parcel right between Willamette and Amazon, it’s right there by the dental clinic, it’s close to South [Eugene High School], it’s in proximity to the University, so there’s lots of potential for something to go on – that can have a sustainable revenue for the maintenance of the stadium.”
“The school district says it has no value – there’s asbestos, there are lead paint issues in other buildings on the property, there’s some old D.E.Q. issues that supposedly the school district had a letter of O.K-ability, but there are underground gasoline tanks, plus all that asphalt that needs to get torn up, and that if anybody comes in, they’re going to have to have a totally new infrastructure for water and sewer and everything else – it’s going to be a lot of work that’s going to have to go into it, and 4J wants to get out from under it for right now.”
“The situation that the property is in right now is that it is in flux. It’s on the market, not just with a ‘For Sale’ sign but on the market to be – in some kind of way – utilized, and how it’s going to be utilized is still yet to be determined.”
“We don’t know all the players who are involved, who might have a desire for the property. Pretty much all we know is the Y(MCA) would love to have it, to build a new facility on, because they’ve been in dire need of a new facility for a while, and until Civic came on the market they were just going to refurbish on the site that they already have. Now that Civic is available, they would like to utilize that potential property there. The main thing with the Y is that they’d love to preserve the stadium but, at the same time, they don’t have the means to do that. Therefore it’s not real conceivable that they would put in a proposal that would keep the stadium unless they find somebody who has the money upfront who would say ‘I’ve got a million dollars – I’ll pay you a billion dollars for the stadium, and then I’ve got a million dollars to fix it up.’ I think that’s the only way that they would play with anybody who wants to preserve the stadium. Otherwise, we feel that they’re looking for someone who’s got some money to develop it, some cash in their pocket, because the school district, we’ve read in the last three or four months, has said ‘We need some money now – we don’t want money two or three years down the road, we want money now.” And the thing with the Y, they’re sitting on a million dollars worth of property where they’re at right now, but they couldn’t give that million to 4J (the district) until two, three, four years from now – although the sign says ‘For Sale, Trade or Lease’. So, we don’t know – they might be open to something.”
“Other than that, our biggest fear is that some developer’s gonna come in and tear it down and pack it with student housing or something, you know, because it’s a prime area for stuff like that – it’s still within a good distance, it’s right on the bus line … as things stand right now, everybody’s still grappling for what their final proposal’s gonna be, because right now we’re not fighting at the endgame – we’re still in between.”
“We’ve still got two months left, and the way things go in Eugene, it doesn’t get done until the last minute – I mean, you go to concerts and promoters are scared that nobody’s gonna show up because of ticket sales, but yet the night of the show everybody comes and it’s sold out. Well, that’s how things kind of go in Eugene – people watch – ‘well, I wonder what so-and-so’s gonna do? No one’s doing anything – maybe it’s time we did something!’ Watching how government works, how people work, the socialness of Eugene, it seems like when there’s something that really matters, someone comes through at the last minute.”
“We hate for it to go that far – we love to see something beforehand, and we’re still working some angles – not that I can talk about – but there’s still some good potential, and still a heck of a lot of hope out there – and that’s the main thing to have right now, in that we continue to talk about it, we try to keep it out in the press as much as possible – you know, it’s difficult now because the election just got over, and we have the holidays, but we’ll be kicking something in pretty soon, and be doing some more efforts to make it more noticeable and see if we can rally some more people. The district says it’d be up for some land swap, so we’re looking for someone who’s sitting on some land, who’s got too much money than they know what to do with right now. You never can tell, that’s why you’ve gotta keep talking it up, you gotta keep the spirit alive, because you may talk to that person who knows somebody who can help you out. Every day I wear my Save Civic Stadium button amd somebody will see me – it’s just so much a part of the heritage of Eugene – it’s all around, and they come, just the last stand, people saying No, you can’t tear it down, you’ve got to think of some use for it. We can do it. I think that people would do it, if it comes down to that, and they say well, the wrecking ball’s coming – I say there’d be a lot of people out there. You never can tell.”
“There are those true believers – I need people who will always show up because they really love it. Our mission is to make allies to try to save the stadium, and so far it’s worked out that way.”