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story.lead_photo.caption Benton School District Plant Manager Kevin Chastain, left, talks with Superintendent Mike Skelton and Athletic Director Scott Neathery on Thursday morning at the site of the new Panthers baseball stadium. On May 14, the Benton School Board approved a bid of nearly $4 million from Nabholz Construction to relocate the baseball stadium to the Benton Athletic Sports Complex. The new stadium will parallel the softball field, which was built in 2009.

— One of the final steps of a nearly 11-year project has finally taken shape.

On May 14, the Benton School Board approved a bid of $3.9 million from Nabholz Construction to relocate the Panthers baseball field to the Benton Athletic Complex.

The complex was originally planned in 2007, and the master facilities plan was to put the sports fields on a separate site as a result of the space needed to build academic facilities on the main campus.

In the original plans, there was a space at the complex designated for a football, soccer and track stadium, a softball field, a baseball field, a maintenance facility and a transportation department. The softball field was completed in 2009 and was the first structure because the Lady Panthers did not have a place to play.

“Jump to 2018: Everything in the original plan is complete except the transportation department and the baseball field,” Benton Athletic Director Scott Neathery said. “Both are in construction now.

“We expect the baseball field to be ready for opening day of the 2019 baseball season.”

Neathery said other major projects that were included in the last debt extension include the following:

• Adding junior high classrooms.

• Expanding the high school band building.

• Remodeling the Cook Fieldhouse classroom facilities.

• Remodeling and expanding the district’s dining and kitchen spaces.

Neathery said the growth of the district necessitated the relocation of the baseball stadium to use its current site for academic facilities.

“The new baseball complex will mirror our softball facility,” Neathery said. “The press box will look the same as the softball field, with a coaches’ office, large media section, bathroom, storage and a hospitality section.”

He said there will also be concessions on the bottom floor to serve baseball and softball. There will also be three sets of covered bleachers with storage under them, as well as player and umpire locker rooms included in the dugouts.

“I am very proud of the progress the Benton School District has made in updating all of our facilities,” Neathery said. “Plant manager Kevin Chasten and I were fortunate enough to be in the master-planning phase years ago.

“It is very rewarding to see that our top-notch facilities mirror our exceptional teachers, students and patrons, who help produce a high-quality educational institution, as well as a high-quality athletic program in Benton.”

Benton Superintendent Mike Skelton said district officials are fortunate and excited to have this opportunity to build the new baseball stadium.

“By relocating the stadium, we gain the land that it currently sits on to be able to provide space for possible future expansion,” Skelton said. “We are limited in the space availability in and around our middle school, junior high and high school campuses.

“This will provide us with the ability to better accommodate the growing facility needs that we have in our district, due to increasing enrollment numbers.”

Skelton said this specific project would not be possible without the support of the Benton community.

“We had many community and strategic-planning meetings with stakeholders — prior

to moving forward with recent additions and expansion — in which the needs of the district were identified, and this project is a result of this feedback,” Skelton said. “The positive opportunities that this project provides for our student-athletes and community will be immediately noticeable.”

Benton head baseball coach Mark Balisterri said he is excited about the new stadium and is happy to be a part of the transition.

“We are going to have a beautiful facility at the complex,” Balisterri said. “The long-range plan was always to move the baseball stadium, and it is finally happening. I’m pretty excited.”

Balisterri said that Benton’s new stadium — which is going to be completely turf — is going to be a showcase for the state.

“It is going to be state of the art,” he said. “Right now, we are tucked right in the middle of our campus, and that area is perfect for growth of our school.

“They felt like it was a good time to move the stadium, so when we need that space for buildings, it will be available immediately.”

Balisterri said that at this stage of his career, it is refreshing to be able to get something like this.

“I drive by it every day, and all I am seeing is a bunch of dirt work,”

Balisterri said. “But I remember, back in 2000 or 2001, when they were building Panther Field, I could stand out on the middle school porch and see the dirt being moved around, and now it is even more exciting to see that it is happening again.”

Balisterri described the new stadium as a great place for kids to play baseball.

“I am fortunate enough and healthy enough that I get the opportunity to continue to do what I am doing and do it on a top-notch field,” he said.

Benton High School hosted the softball state championships May 18 and 19.

“There were over 5,000 spectators who attended the two-day and seven-game event,” Skelton said. “These types of events are an economic boost for our city and county.

“These same spectators eat, buy gas, rent hotels and shop here as well. This would not have been possible if we did not have top-notch facilities in the Benton School District.”

Skelton said that thankfully, the school board and community recognize that this new baseball facility is something that is needed.

“It will aid us in carrying out the vision and the mission that have been set forth for meeting the needs of our students and community,” Skelton said.

Staff writer Sam Pierce can be reached at (501) 244-4314 or spierce@arkansasonline.com.

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