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$1.8 million in improvements to bolster East Side’s Johnnie B. Wiley

The Johnnie B. Wiley Amateur Athletic Pavilion has made a comeback in recent years.

Now, the East Side facility looks to reach another level with $1.8 million in state money for improvements. The work is expected to provide a lift to the neighborhood near the Fruit Belt, City Honors School and Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

“It will be awesome to see the upgrades, and finally recognize Johnnie B. Wiley as a beacon on the East Side that we can all be proud of and utilize,” said Kenneth Simmons, a pastor at Cold Springs Bible Chapel and commissioner of National Inner Cities Youth Opportunities, which sponsors youth baseball.

Here’s what’s planned:

• The cracked and peeling gray and magenta-striped tower facades – remnants of War Memorial Stadium – will be repointed and repaired.

• The baseball field will get a scoreboard, lights, public address system, press box, dugouts, bleachers and bullpens.

• The site’s track and field will receive a timing system for meets.

• Historic markers will be erected to commemorate the stadium’s sports history – the Bills won back-to-back American Football League championships there – and tell visitors about the man for whom the facility is named.

• The Dodge Street tower, which houses the long-running after-school Omega Mentoring Program, will get second-floor bathrooms and an elevator, making the site compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The upgrades are planned to start in the spring and be completed by summer 2017.

“This will be incredibly important to the city and important to youth baseball citywide,” said Mayor Byron W. Brown, who sought the money from the state Dormitory Authority. “When all of this is completed, Buffalo will be known as having one of the finest youth sports facilities in the entire region.”

Fits and starts

Creating the Johnnie B. Wiley complex was the marker community leaders laid down in order for Mayor Jimmy Griffin to move the Bisons baseball team into a new downtown stadium, now called Coca-Cola Field, in 1988. The Works Project Administration-built War Memorial Stadium had been an East Side mainstay since its opening in 1937. The Bills played there from 1960 to 1972 and the Bisons called the stadium home from 1979 to 1987. Its faded, retro appearance was the backdrop for “The Natural,” the 1984 sports baseball movie starring Robert Redford.

“Mayor Griffin and others wanted to have the baseball stadium, and in turn for that support the concession was that we wanted the ‘Rockpile’ to become a sports pavilion,” said Charley H. Fisher III, chairman of the Youth Planning Council at the time.

Over the years, the facility at Jefferson Avenue and Dodge and Best streets waited for improvements. A $2 million federal grant intended for the complex went missing for more than a decade.

The money from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development was approved in September 1992, but the paperwork wasn’t finalized until March 1995, under Mayor Anthony M. Masiello. Eventually, city officials lost track of the funds, possibly because council district boundaries were redrawn. HUD officials said the grant went off their radar because the funding category was moved into a different division.

In early 2007, a HUD intern came upon the unspent $2 million while reviewing old files to make sure they were properly closed.

The Brown administration announced a plan for the athletic complex in February 2009, shortly after The News reported on the unused grant.

An agreement also reached that year called on the Buffalo School District to oversee the site. That ended a deadlock with the city that had left in limbo financial support for the Wiley facility from the Bisons and the Rich Family Foundation, longtime supporters of the district’s varsity baseball teams.

The $2 million in improvements back in 2009 brought new turf, irrigation and drainage systems and an outfield fence to the baseball field. An eight-lane, all-weather running track was refurbished, and an artificial turf and a new drainage system were installed for the football and soccer field, helped by a $200,000 grant from Local Initiatives Support Corp. and NFL Charities.

In the locker rooms, improvements were made to the heating, ventilation and lighting systems.

And the city spent $428,000 to renovate the Dodge Street tower for the after-school program.

Focus, direction

Inside the Dodge Street tower earlier this week, 18 teenagers worked on Greek step routines. They’re part of the Omega Mentoring Program that Cedric Holloway, one of Wiley’s seven children, began in 1999.

The all-volunteer after-school program provides a structured and supervised environment for about 25 children, ages 13 to 18. It’s held Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays.

Holloway, a detective sergeant and SWAT team member for the Buffalo Police Department, has seen the lives of too many black youths end violently and tragically after they become mixed up in gangs and drugs.

“I have watched more than a few kids die in front of me,” Holloway said.

“With a little influence and a little guidance, these folks can be steered in a correct direction,” he said. “This gives them focus, direction and purpose.”

Daniel Bolden, the assistant director, found the mentoring program vital during his teenage years.

“I grew up in a household that was very challenging, and this program instilled certain principles that helped me develop as a man, and which exposed me to people outside of my community that were doing well,” Bolden said. “It helped me get into college, and helped me with mentoring after I got in.”

Bolden called Holloway a “father figure” to the kids.

“He has done a lot of amazing things in this building, and saved a lot of lives,” Bolden said.

Twenty-five youngsters will soon fly to Charlotte, N.C., and spend three days visiting 10 colleges in that state and neighboring South Carolina. The program also offers an annual formal ball. The youngsters take trips to go white water rafting and snow tubing and visit Cedar Point amusement park in Sandusky, Ohio.

The after-school program receives $25,000 annually from the Benderson Family Foundation, and it won a $30,000 grant this year from the Garmin Co.

“I fill their schedule, because the kids have a lot of time on their hands,” Holloway said. “This week they’re on break, and we’ve got a bunch of volunteer projects for them to do.”

Holloway wasn’t close with his father, but he recognizes that he has continued in his father’s footsteps anyway.

“It must have trickled down in the DNA, because without his influence, this is what I chose,” said Holloway, whose framed citations on a wall include a Community Service Award from President Obama and a NAACP Human Relations Award.

Holloway said the new bathrooms are needed to expand the number of people permitted on the second floor. And the elevator will make it possible for everyone to get to the second floor, where many activities occur.

Wiley’s dedication

Wiley was revered in the community for his dedication to helping children. He died a year before the stadium was named for him in 1997.

“He was a fearless, passionate warrior for our young people, and he let no one or no thing stop him from the purpose of helping and saving young people in our community,” Fisher said.

Fisher, who considered Wiley a mentor, is glad that historic markers will tell the story of the stadium’s glorious past and Wiley himself.

“It is with great pride that it is being finished,” Fisher said of the project. “Finally, the check that has been written will be cashed that will help make this worthy of Johnnie B. Wiley’s name.”

“This is something we think is going to be cherished by everybody,” said Steven J. Stepniak, the city’s public works commissioner. “This is one of those things I’m taking under my wing, and we’re going to get this done.”

‘Long time coming’

The just-announced baseball field improvements and the tower building’s renovations fulfill past promises.

“This is an opportunity for all Cornell Cup teams to play on a field that is second to none,” said Frank DiLeo, City Honors varsity baseball coach. “It will allow for us to host potential tournaments and sectional and non-league games. It’ll also be a great opportunity to play night games. Who would have thought that would be possible?”

Michael J. Billoni, a former vice president and general manager of the Bisons, said he was glad to see the baseball field getting the bells and whistles rarely seen on city fields.

“I look forward to watching future Buffalo Bisons playing baseball on that beautiful field,” Billoni said.

Council President Darius Pridgen, whose Ellicott District includes the Wiley facility, wants the Buffalo Arts Commission to help create signage to do the site justice.

“I’m very excited to see the changes as a son of the East Side, and someone who grew up and saw the facility when it was the old Rockpile and then a mess full of rocks. It’s a long time coming,” Pridgen said. “This facility that was already good now becomes great.”