Come next football season, Windermere High School students, parents, staff and families might be getting their longtime dream — a football stadium on campus.
The school’s off-campus football stadium — built more than a mile down the road from the campus — has seen a multitude of complications since it opened in 2018, which we told you about here.
Parents say the problems — including lack of parking, insufficient seating in the stadium and safety concerns in the event of bad weather — all were anticipated before the stadium was built.
Now, those problems are being addressed, with Orange County District 1 Commissioner Nicole Wilson and Orange County School Board Member for District 4 Pam Gould both saying the county and the district seem to be on the same page for the first time in years.
The goal: Bring the stadium, currently located at Deputy Scott Pine Community Park, to Windermere’s campus before the start of the 2023 football season.
“I know I speak for the entire WHS community when I say the prospect of having an on-campus stadium is an exciting next step as we continue to build on our traditions,” WHS Principal Andrew Leftakis said. “The stadium will help foster positive community relations as we showcase student athletes, music programs and special events. Regardless of what happens, we appreciate the work (Superintendent) Dr. (Maria) Vazquez and our elected officials have done to move this project forward.”
In September 2022, the stadium grievances boiled over when Orange County revoked the school’s ability to park on the grass at Scott Pine. Park officials said the grass had sustained significant damage the week before because of the parking and significant rain. That decision forced Windermere to postpone and relocate a game.
Two months later, Wilson made a request to revisit the site plan with the hopes of approving an on-campus stadium.
“My goal is to make sure that that happens before the next football season, because otherwise, we’re going to be right back into the same concerns about safety and about transportation,” she said. “Obviously, OCPS is a large governmental entity that we’re not in control of, but the good news is that we are all on the same page, and I think it’s the first time that we’ve all been on the same page. As the county, we’re limited, but one of the things we can do is to try and revisit the county decisions that were made in the past.”
Gould agreed, reiterating the same goal.
“My hope is that the stadium will be back on campus, because it would make it a much safer and better experience for our students and families,” she said. “It would certainly make it a better experience for the community. The road and the park are just not equipped to hold high school, well-attended games with bands, cheerleaders and everything else. … My hope is that it’s a win-win-win for everyone. It’s a win for neighborhoods because they get traffic off the streets and make the roads safer. It’s a win for our kids who will have a better high school experience. It’s certainly a win for the families that want to be there to cheer them on.”
Although Wilson said she has had some residents ask if they should start fundraising for the stadium already, she has told them to hold off, because there may be funds available that weren’t accessible the first time around.
“We want to cross those bridges when we get to them,” she said. “I don’t want residents to get too far ahead of the game. I know everyone wants it to be done tomorrow; I know I want it to be done tomorrow. … It is going to take a couple more steps, but it doesn’t take us back to the start.”
Based on Dec. 13, 2022, Orange County School Board documents, the budgeted cost of the stadium is an amendment to the Fiscal Year 2022-23 capital outlay budget in the amount of $9.3 million from sales tax fund reserves.
The funds will be allocated as follows: $6.8 million to build an on-site football stadium and rubberized track at WHS and $2.5 million to fund the roof replacement costs of the Orange Technical College capital project.
“This will allow the district to relocate high school football and other stadium events to the school’s campus and alleviate safety concerns associated with traffic and inclement weather,” school board officials said. “The roof replacement scope was originally earmarked to be funded from the capital outlay and debt service revenue source; however, the extent of the scope has made this project ineligible for this funding source.”
Even though there will be a public hearing, the stadium is not starting from scratch.
Wilson said the special exception already was put through when the school was approved, so the amended agreements revise what was already done.
“Looking at the original site plan, we know that there’s enough room, we know that it was sited toward the road, we know there’s a process that will largely be a simplified process because the zoning is already done,” she said. “The school is already there, so we don’t have to restart that whole process. Knowing that the site plan originally submitted is largely what will be used is providing some comfort for people who may have concerns. The plans are no closer to the residential street, no buildings are being torn down, no large structures are being added. The plans would utilize only the space that was originally planned for a stadium to be a stadium and not a practice field.”
Planners will look at the revised site plan to ensure sure it fits in with what was originally approved. If the project aligns, then it should make its way onto an agenda.
Wilson said she plans to make sure agenda development knows the stadium is a priority and on a timed deadline.
Although there is no timeline for the project — it depends on the pace of permitting — Gould and Wilson both mentioned the possibility of a phased approach for additional facilities, which Wilson said was discussed in her last engagement with the planning division.
“If there’s a way to expedite a piece or part of this in order to be able to hold the games here, we don’t necessarily need all of that at once,” Wilson said. “If there’s a concession stand that still needs to work out plumbing, it shouldn’t hold up the site plan approvals.”
From her understanding, Wilson said there’s nothing on the approval process side of the project that prohibits “us from getting teed up to go for just the regular updated amended plan.”
“It’s not a rezoning; there’s nothing that needs to start from scratch,” she said. “The excitement is to see what happens once this part is done. The goal would be to put that stadium where OCPS has it as part of its programming for the school so the kids there can have everything that every other high school student has. Right now, I’m so grateful that the principal has been so engaged and involved. He’s a real advocate for the students and families. He has such a heart for the community and making sure that those kids get every part of their high school experience, so any place I can help him with that, I’m going to do it.”
Parents say the biggest concern for the stadium always has been safety.
Windermere parents gathered petitions and created a Facebook page, “Move Windermere High School Stadium on campus,” which has recently been changed to “It’s Time - Move Windermere High School Stadium on campus.”
Parent Jane Benner has felt the stadium pains by being part of the original parent group that lobbied for the high school starting in 2012.
Benner currently has a sophomore football player at the school and has a graduate who was in the band and part of the school’s first graduating class. She also has one younger son who plays lacrosse and is set to attend the school in the future.
“We told them all of these things would happen back when these decisions were being made,” she said. “That’s what’s so frustrating about it. But it’s also gratifying, because now we’re finally being heard. This will be the final piece of actually creating a Windermere High School community. I do feel like it’s been fractured up until this point, simply because we don’t have that little piece. When you go to all of these other schools who have a stadium on site, you can feel a significant difference in the atmosphere.”
As one of the parents who originally came to advocate for the Windermere relief school, Wilson is familiar with the frustrations voiced by current parents.
“There was very valid and legitimate desperation just to make sure that those kids had seats in classrooms, so they were willing to take a scenario where they had to give up something, which was the stadium,” she said.
Kirstine Briggs, who has two sons who play lacrosse at the school, handles corporate sponsorships as part of her role with the school’s booster club and said as soon as she gets the word she is ready to make the stadium happen with any additional funds needed.
“As a parent of an athlete and as vice president of the boosters, our athletes are No. 1 for us,” she said. “All we want is for our children to have everything that we had. The comfort of a stadium that feels like home, more home spirit, everything right there at their fingertips. They should feel connected. Scott Pine is very nice, but I have seen firsthand the disconnect for the kids. We’re ready to put in the sweat and tears, hopefully not too many, to get this done and to get it all finished as soon as possible.”
Windermere football coach Riki Smith said an on-campus stadium would transform the Wolverine atmosphere.
“The biggest plus would be an anticipated expectation of an unparalleled home coming atmosphere at our home site,” he said. “School spirit is heightened. There could also be significant benefits for fans — particularly students and families who wouldn’t have to travel to see our team play. Friday night football games will bring in more ticket sales and revenue because of increased attendance and school pride. Increased attendance would increase concessions sales which would directly benefit the athletic department and football team. Having an on-campus stadium would have a stronger level of safety and security as more school staff members would attend football games.
“We have never really enjoyed the comfort of home-field advantage, because both teams are always visitors,” Smith said.