WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- An effort by Winston-Salem State University to acquire Bowman Gray Stadium hit a potentially fatal snag in the General Assembly on Thursday when the N.C. House Finance Committee stripped the project from a bill allowing improvements to various institutions in the University of North Carolina system.
A WSSU official said that the finance committee took out approval for the $7.5 million purchase on a voice vote, after several lawmakers and former Forsyth County Rep. Dale Folwell spoke out against the plan.
A bill including the purchase had already been approved by the N.C. Senate. University officials say they are now hoping the money can be put back in when the House and Senate versions are reconciled in conference.
The university wants to buy the stadium and the surrounding land from the city of Winston-Salem so that it can have room for expansion, although it would continue to play its football games at the stadium and auto racing would still be held.
"The university is extremely disappointed that we've hit this snag," said Winston-Salem State University spokeswoman Nancy Young. "All we can do right now is answer questions and be hopeful that we can move forward with the project."
On a voice vote the house finance committee removed the money after several lawmakers including former Forsyth County Rep. Dale Folwell, speaking as a private citizen, spoke out against it saying he was concerned it would hurt tourism, racing and would be paid for on the backs of students with a $110.00 student fee.
"Our students are really excited about the opportunity of owning that property. It's a matter of pride if anything else. I've talked to them it's not only important to us now but alumni,” Young said.
Cornelius Graves, the university’s director of government and community relations, said university officials had felt confident that they had resolved all the questions about the sale. Agreements had been reached to retain the name of the stadium and to assure that racing activities would continue unchanged.
“We felt fairly confident from our conversations with the city and the racing group in Winston-Salem,” Graves said. “We have a motorsport management program with a four-year bachelor of science (degree) in motorsports. There’s an opportunity for a learning lab there (at the stadium). Racing is important to North Carolina and provides a lot of jobs.”
Folwell, who could not be reached Thursday by the Winston-Salem Journal and Fox 8, has opposed the sale, citing a concern that it would raise student fees at Winston-Salem State and hurt tourism. Graves said Folwell returned to those themes in speaking to lawmakers Thursday as a citizen.
“He said we were paying for it on the backs of the students, affecting racing and the tourism it has brought in,” Graves said, summarizing Folwell’s speech. “The students are all for it and it will not affect racing.”
The Forsyth County legislative delegation had supported the sale, WSSU officials said. Young said that while student fees would rise by close to $110 a year, it is typical for universities to use fees to support stadium projects.
But for WSSU the project is more than just the stadium, Young said.
“It is the property around the stadium because we are landlocked,” Young said. “We lease parking lots from the city. We lease where we have the football practice field. We have got a baseball team that has won three conference championships in a row and we don’t have a home field.”
By owning the stadium, Young said, the university could collect concession money and parking fees. Nearby land would be available for academic expansion, too.
“It is more than a baseball stadium — it is part of our master plan to have expansion,” Young said.
The Winston-Salem Journal contributed to this report.