The Johnnie B. Wiley Amateur Athletic Pavilion got another boost with $1.8 million in state aid for improvements. It should help complete the makeover on a site that was once treated like its nickname, the Old Rockpile.
For years, decades even, the East Side site near the Fruit Belt, City Honors and the now-burgeoning Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus where the Bisons and Bills once played was treated with grave indifference. Confusion reigned when it came to who would take responsibility. Money to improve it sat on the table, lost for decades.
Investment from Bob and Mindy Rich and the Buffalo Bisons and the Benderson Family Foundation, along with generous donations by the NFL and other private entities, along with strong community advocacy, made the difference.
So, too, does new state money.
News reporter Mark Sommer outlined various upgrades from the recent state infusion with plans to start in the spring and be completed by summer 2017:
• Repointing and repairing of the cracked and peeling gray and magenta-striped tower faces, which are remnants of War Memorial Stadium.
• For the baseball field, a scoreboard, lights, public address system, press box, dugouts, bleachers and bullpens.
• Timing systems for meets on the site’s track and field area.
• Historic markers to commemorate the stadium’s sports history, which includes the Bills’ back-to-back American Football League championship wins and with plans to talk about the stadium’s namesake.
• Improvements to the Dodge Street tower, which houses the long-running after-school Omega Mentoring Program.
Mayor Byron W. Brown, who sought the money from the state Dormitory Authority, remarked on ambitious plans made conceivable with this money: “When all of this is completed, Buffalo will be known as having one of the finest youth sports facilities in the entire region.”
Several years ago, such high expectations would not have been realistic. Now called the Johnnie B. Wiley, the Works Project Administration-constructed War Memorial Stadium opened in 1937 and has since gone through a lot, from name changes, to seasons that saw the Buffalo Bills on its turf and the Bisons on its field. It even served as the backdrop to a famous movie, “The Natural” an iconic, 1984 baseball drama starring the famous actor/director Robert Redford.
Call it benign neglect, or some form of incompetence, but a full $2 million of federal grant funds that were meant for the stadium fell through the cracks for more than a decade. It wasn’t until 2007 that a Department of Housing and Urban Development intern reviewing old files – making sure they were properly closed – found the money.
Brown announced a plan for the complex in February 2009, shortly after The News reported on the unused grant. Just as good was the agreement to have the Buffalo School District to oversee the site, which meant financial support from the Bisons and the Rich Family Foundation could flow.
The money was put to good use with infrastructure and cosmetic upgrades. There was a $200,000 grant from Local Initiatives Support Corp. and NFL Charities.
The public sector has played a key role but there were many times that politics got in the way of progress. The stadium’s namesake and those who followed, including Cedric Holloway, one of Wiley’s seven children, and others have dedicated their time and energy to mentoring young people. Now they will have a chance to continue with upgrades that promise to make this into a top-notch field of dreams.
Let’s keep the momentum going.