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Austin, Garfield Park, North Lawndale

Renovations To West Side Stadium Will Give Student Athletes ‘A Sense Of Pride,’ District Says

The Rockne Stadium in Austin is getting a new turf field, an upgraded track and other renovations to modernize the outdated CPS athletic facility.

A rendering of the updated Rockne Stadium.
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AUSTIN — A West Side stadium used by Chicago Public Schools sports teams will be brought up to date with renovations to the fields, track, locker rooms and other outdated parts of the facility.

The $10.7 million upgrades to the Knute Rockne Stadium at 1117 S. Central Ave. will be completed in two phases between this summer and next. The improvements are part of a Chicago Public Schools campaign to modernize district facilities, including the six stadiums owned by the district.

Rockne Stadium is dedicated to elementary through high school athletics programs, and it is also heavily used for summer sports. Each stadium hosts around 1,000 games each year, though Rockne Stadium was long overdue for an upgrade, said David Rosengard, executive director of sports administration for the district.

“It’s dingy. It needs a lot of work, which it’s getting,” Rosengard said. “I want our student athletes to come in there with a sense of pride.”

The first phase of the renovations will lay down a turf field and install an eight-lane track. Construction on the track and turf field has already begun and is expected to be finished by fall, Rosengard said.

The grass field at the stadium “was lumpier than a roller coaster,” and the track was beat up to the point of being nearly unusable, so the improvements will allow better programs to be hosted at the stadium, Rosengard said.

“This is going to provide our kids a track program in the neighborhood … that they don’t have, because there was no track that you could run on,” he said.

Phase two of the overhaul will renovate the bathrooms, locker rooms, add a new scoreboard, improve the lighting and add a parking lot to the facility. The stadium will also be getting a concessions stand. Construction on phase two will begin in 2023.

“Our sports teams go out to the suburbs and they come back and say, ‘Why don’t we have a facility like this?’ Our kids deserve it,” Rosengard said. “Our kids will walk into this and go, ‘Wow, this is cool.'”

The 8.5-acre stadium was last renovated in 2007. At that time, the stadium was in a state of disrepair, said Bernard Clay, a resident and local school council member for Michelle Clark High School. At the behest of residents, the district installed better lighting in the outdoor stadium so it could host games at night, and ever since then, Rockne Stadium has been a major neighborhood attraction, he said.

Some families were hesitant about the project due to a lack of community engagement in the process of planning the upgrades to the stadium, Clay said. At a recent community forum on the stadium improvements, residents expressed frustration that they were not informed of the project until after plans were already in motion.

“They went ahead and did what they want,” Clay said. “They didn’t get the buy-in from any of the parents.”

The district did host a series of community engagement meetings and survey families in 2021 about the broader capital improvement campaign for all Chicago Public Schools facilities. But the meetings and surveys were not specifically about what kinds of amenities should be added to Rockne Stadium.

If the district had consulted the community on Rockne Stadium, many would have asked for the district to upgrade it to an indoor stadium so young people could play sports year round, Clay said.

“Our kids miss out on a lot of scholarships … because there’s no indoor athletic opportunities,” he said.

The district did not have an extensive process for gathering resident input since the Rockne Stadium project was focused on bringing the stadium up to standard rather than redesigning the building for a new purpose, Rosengard said. In any case, it would be a “huge budget lift” to build an indoor stadium, and the district wouldn’t have the funds to do so, he said.

Even without the indoor stadium that some were hoping for, the improvements will still be great for neighborhood kids, Clay said. But parents need to feel like they have a voice in the school system, especially on the West Side where many are enrolling in charters and suburban schools out of dissatisfaction over a lack of investment in local schools, Clay said.

“It will be beneficial. But where’s the community buy-in? It will be beneficial for kids who play there, but think of all the kids whose parents are frustrated … and will send their kids to suburban high schools,” Clay said.

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