An anonymous donor has made St. Joseph-Ogden High School an offer they couldn’t refuse. And because of it, SJO athletic facilities may look vastly different in the years to come.
The donor has wanted to build a new baseball field for the Royal Giants of the Eastern Illinois Baseball League for years and has asked if the SJO baseball team would like to play home games at the facility, SJO school board member Les Hoveln said.
Hoveln is acting as an intermediary between the school district and the donor. After spending years looking for land in the Royal area, the donor finally found land across from Salt Fork Paintball and the Pioneer Seed plant on Route 150 in St. Joseph for sale and is moving forward with the project.
“This has been ongoing for five years,” Hoveln said. “The ability to find land was extremely difficult. Frankly, that is what has been holding us up.”
Hoveln said the project was being brought to the board now because the landowner had to overcome significant hurdles at the county level.
“Things went very slow and now things are going very fast,” he said.
The field will not have lights initially, but lights could be added at a later date. It will have restroom and concession areas along with storage facilities.
Hoveln said the donor is a former SJO student who also played for the Giants.
“With the purchase of the property, it made sense of including the high school team,” Hoveln said. “It will potentially be the nicest high school baseball field in the area and will be comparable to a lot of college baseball fields. There will be a pretty significant investment in this property.”
Hoveln said the donor was open to the high school team using the field as their home field in exchange for the district helping with the continued maintenance of the field. Hoveln estimated that cost would be below $2,000 a month.
The grass infield and outfield will be fully irrigated and the facility will have grass parking.
“I think this is an amazing offer,” SJO board member Mitch Schluter said. “It’s a small cost for what we would get.”
While Hoveln wouldn’t reveal exact donation amount, SJO Superintendent Brian Brooks said it’s an extremely generous donation.
Brooks said that SJO’s facility committee has spent years discussing how to create space for programs on campus, including drama, wrestling and soccer. The committee discussed moving the baseball field and softball fields, but they found that due to the district’s limited land, it just wasn’t possible.
“We feel like as a facility committee this could open up opportunities to multiple programs,” Brooks said.
Brooks said SJO baseball coach Josh Haley has been involved in the process and supports moving the team to the new field.
“He has no concerns with that,” Brooks said.
Brooks said some discussions have included moving Randy Wolken Field, SJO’s home softball venue, to where the current baseball field is located. The donor has also told the school that if they wanted to relocate the softball field to the new location, at their own cost, he would be open to that, Hoveln said.
Hoveln said they plan on laying the water and electrical that is necessary to house two fields at the location in the event the school would want to do that. The softball field would be located to the west of the baseball field. When the project was being permitted, they included a softball field in case the district would want to pursue that option.
Hoveln said he believes each field would need its own bathroom and concession stand. Hoveln said they are meeting with the architects and the builder in a week.
Brooks said if both fields were moved, that would open the possibility of having the SJO soccer team play its home matches on a field near the high school. Currently, the team plays at Woodard Park on a village field.
“This has opened up a door that wasn’t open very long ago,” Brooks said.
Brooks said one scenario would see the soccer and football teams sharing a potential turf field and practice area. All athletic venues at SJO currently have grass fields.
Brooks said the facility committee also wants to find a space for wrestling and drama. They want to take the current drama area inside the high school and make it an actual auditorium and move wrestling to its own area, whether that is an addition or utilizing current space differently.
“This could be the thing that opens the door for us to hit multiple programs much quicker than I anticipated,” Brooks said.
The school board voted unanimously to support the donation, coordinate efforts and pay the maintenance costs as well as move the baseball team to the location when the time comes.
“We are committed to doing that and paying our share, whatever that ends up being,” Schluter said.
Hoveln said the project is ready to start and only needs to get its building permit from the county, which he said will take one week. He anticipates starting to move dirt in February and the project being completed in May.
The donor would maintain the ownership of the property, but there would be an agreement in place that the Spartans and the Giants have a place to play as long as they want to and nothing can change that deal.
“I would not get the school district in the middle of something and then pull the rug out from it,” Hoveln said.
Brooks said the district will not raise taxes to fund any of the proposed projects and are looking at bonds to fund the projects.
“We will not raise the tax rate,” he said. “It will either be lower or where it is currently.”
The board heard from First Midstate during the January Board meeting regarding their ability to get $8 million worth of bonds.
“We had been talking about finding a way to finance the auditorium and the wrestling,” Brooks said. “We have wanted to do the auditorium for a long time.”
The donation and funding will be discussed more in detail at the Feb. 22 board meeting.