Merrill Eckstein Praised For Turning Around Finley Stadium

Tuesday, November 19, 2013 - by Gail Perry

There was nothing but praise for Merrill Eckstein at the Finley Stadium board of directors meeting Tuesday morning, the last one that he will attend as the executive director. Paul Smith, who has been working alongside Mr. Eckstein for the last several months, will step into that position Dec. 1.

Chairman of the Board Bryan Patten said that four-five years ago he had thought balancing the stadium budget was “mission impossible.” But he said Mr. Eckstein came in with the expectation the stadium could break even. Good timing helped accomplish that with the change at UTC of Russ Huesman taking over the position of head football coach, and the transfer of B.J. Coleman increasing interest in the team. Since then, the stadium has moved from break-even to making a $58,000 profit last year. “Merrill’s tenure at the stadium will go down as terrific,” said Mr. Patten.

The financial report as of Nov. 7 was presented to the board by Mr. Eckstein. A surplus larger than this same time last year is deceptive, he said, because more has been paid at this point from skybox rentals and the Convention and Visitors Bureau. Revenues are down, however, from parking, concessions and rentals due to a combination of three factors: UTC average attendance per game has been down this year, the Baylor-McCallie game was not held at the stadium, and there were two large soccer exhibition games in 2012-2013. The 3013-2014 budget has been adjusted for those reductions in use of the facility.

In expenditures, the cost of water, sewer, electric and gas services have all increased since last year, but the cost of “event services” is down due to fewer events being hosted at the stadium. Mr. Eckstein said he was most pleased with the significant reduction in costs related to equipment purchase and maintenance because it meant that equipment was being taken care of.

The bottom line is that expenses are down and revenue is up resulting in a year-to-date surplus of $33,000, said Mr. Eckstein. He was quick to add that even though the stadium is making money now, “we have more maintenance items than we have money in the till.”

All other capital projects have been put on the sidelines because of the immediate need for turf repair, said board member Mike Davis. After meeting with UTC athletic director David Blackburn and representatives from several artificial turf manufacturers, problems with the field have been identified and prioritized. Ruts on the field need to be fixed by repairing the sub-surface. The turf will be pulled up and areas where there is sand will be replaced with a stone base. Rubber pellets also need to be replaced. These pellets are distributed throughout the surface of fibers that make up the turf and are the element that soften the field. The white paint used for marking has caused reduction in the height of the fibers under it; however, the turf is still considered to be good for two-four more years. Other problems with the field are where seams separate and come up. These areas can be re-taped and re-glued wherever they are found. Repairs are planned in March before the UTC spring game. “The last time we checked, we were well within the safety parameters,” commented board member Gordon Davenport Jr.

Other matters discussed at the board meeting included the hope that Friends of Finley would be able to raise a minimum of $60,000 for the year ending June 30, 2014. A discussion of how to improve concession sales took place, with suggestions of increasing the offerings as well as making the “operational execution” better in order to reduce time spent in lines. The comfort of the section of blue seats with backs was addressed, with Mr. Smith suggesting to buy seats salvaged from Turner Field when it is demolished. And board member Ricki Pierce, who is compiling a history of the stadium, asked for minutes from old meetings, newspaper clippings and photos from the inception of the facility.

Expenses related to stormwater fees that will be charged by the city of Chattanooga are expected in the coming year, and will have a large impact since there is so much impervious paving around the stadium. Board member Frank Kinser suggested that the stadium negotiate with the city since there were some safeguards installed when the facility was built. A million-gallon holding tank exits under the parking lot that should help with the liability, he said.

When Paul Smith becomes executive director in two weeks “Early indications are that we have a highly energetic and committed successor to Merrill,” said Mr. Patten.

Mr. Smith responded that he planned to leave no stone un-turned. He said he would be considering entertainment events and bringing more high school games to play at Finley Stadium. He also told the board that he would take a long look at concessions, and suggested asking for meters to be installed to determine the amount of water going into the ground.  The stadium will soon have a new website, he added.

Mr. Patten ended the meeting by telling Mr. Eckstein how grateful the board is for the leadership that he has provided. There are few people that have had the impact that Mr. Eckstein has had on the resurgence of this city, it was stated. Mr. Eckstein replied that 21-1/2 years ago, it was the best decision that he had made to move to Chattanooga.


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