by Daniel Schere | @Daniel_Schere

A drive down Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in Winston-Salem is a journey through a discontinuous stretch of varied purposes. The road changes from commercial to residential as you cross over Business 40 and enter the campus of Winston-Salem State University. It then changes back to commercial as you pass a large construction site that will eventually be the location of the Salem Creek Connector. And somewhere in the middle of it all is Bowman Gray Stadium.

The stadium opened in 1949 as a NASCAR facility, with WSSU football coming in 1956. Wake Forest also played its football games there until 1968, when BB&T Field opened.

It will soon be sold to WSSU for more than $7 million as part of their strategic plan for growth, explained city manager Lee Garrity. The acquisition includes the stadium, neighboring Civitan Park and an additional 18 acres east of MLK.

“They wanted to continue to grow their campus footprint in having the stadium to use not just for racing and football,” he said.

Planning director Paul Norby said the area south of the stadium will likely remain as is, but there is potential for developing the parking lot across MLK from the stadium into residential or retail units.

“The character of that area is pretty well-embedded so it’s pretty unrealistic that that area is going to change from industrial to something else,” he said.

The university entered into a Brownfields Agreement with the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources when city first approved a resolution of intent to sell the property in May 2013. The university and the city will jointly fund an environmental assessment that will analyze the stadium’s soil and groundwater. At its Dec. 15 meeting, the council agreed to fund 50 percent of the cost as long as that does not exceed $100,000.

Assistant City Manager Ben Rowe said the need for the testing comes from the fact that because WSSU is a public university, the state is essentially taking over the stadium. He said the university has been working on a contract with an engineering firm to conduct the testing, and once it begins it will last six to eight months.

The General Assembly and Gov. Pat McCrory approved the sale in its summer 2013 session on the conditions that the stadium not be renamed, the property continue to be used for racing and football, the amount of parking remains the same and that parking remains free for racing events.

“We know that there’s a lot of capital improvement needs for the stadium, so we felt like this was an opportunity to approach the university,” Rowe said of the sale.

He said both the university and the city currently pay rent for use of Bowman Gray, and the city also receives a portion of concession sales””something that will stop once the university takes ownership of the property.

“We oversee concession sales for both seasons (Football and NASCAR), and so we get a percentage of sales,” he said. “We hire the concession manager for beverage and food and we get a cut from that.”

Rowe said the new lease agreement that will exist between NASCAR and WSSU would cause all parking revenue and some concession sales to go to the university. He said this would be a net positive deal for the city because the money generated from the sale will allow them to pay off $6.5 million in debt “Our expectation is that the proceeds from the sale of the stadium will pay off the outstanding debt that’s on the stadium, and so we’ll no longer have any lingering obligations like that.”

The impending sale has caught the attention of former NASCAR employee and racing fanatic Harold Day, who owns David E. Day paint company. Day explained that the stadium was a gift from Gray’s wife Nathalie Lyons that was built in 1936 after Gray, the chairman of RJ Reynolds at the time, was lost at sea.

“The city got a gift,” he said. “What I don’t understand as a citizen of Winston-Salem is when did we get the right to give away a gift?” Day has been attending races at the stadium for 60 years, having grown up about a mile away. He said it is one of the most popular stadiums in the country on Saturdays, with crowds on bad nights totaling 8,000 and 15,000 on good nights.

“Promoters up and down the coast would give their right arm for the crowd they have at Bowman Gray Stadium on Saturday night,” he said.

Day has been a regular visitor to city council meetings, consistently voicing his opposition to the university’s acquisition of the stadium. He has had concerns over the maintenance of the facility, citing instances where lights and the scoreboard were left on after football games. Day also thinks passing the torch to the university will put a financial strain on students who are there on grant money.

“They have no money,” he said of the university. “And the way they’re going to pay it back if they did it is to put it on student activity fees.”

Day is not pleased that the university charges for parking on game days and said this is simply to account for a lack of revenue from ticket sales.

“You can’t charge a working man for parking,” he said. “I mean the ballpark, they don’t have no people. They might have a couple thousand over there for a ballgame but you know they sell corporate tickets. That what pays it, whether someone shows up to sit in a seat or not.”

Day said he looked into investing into the stadium himself, but the city imposed a 9pm curfew, which he thinks would have put him out of business. He also said they asked him for more information than he was willing to share.

“The city asked me for financials on all my investors for the past two years, and I told them there’s no way in hell,” he said. “I said you all owe money to people $500,000 to $600,000 and don’t ask for their financials. Why would you want the financials on my people?” Day maintains that the council is heavily biased toward the university because some council members have ties there.

“We’ve got a council up there that’s representing 325,000 citizens in Winston-Salem but they only look out for the good of just a few,” he said.

“I could have 1,000 people show up at a city council meeting any time I desire. But they don’t listen to that. We’ve got four people on the city council, four of them in particular are directly connected to Winston-Salem State.”

The members Day is referring to are Vivian Burke, Denise Adams, Derwin Montgomery and James Taylor Jr. Burke sits on the university’s Board of Trustees, Taylor is the Interim Internship Coordinator and Montgomery is an alumnus who was once the president of the university’s NAACP chapter. Adams has no ties to the university but has donated in the past. !