By Barrett Newkirk, Herald Bulletin Staff Writer
ANDERSON - "Historic" and "tradition" are two words long associated with the Wigwam, but a newer description from some people might be "drain," as in a drain on the checkbook of Anderson Community Schools.
As the school district looks for ways to cut millions from its budget, one idea tossed out at recent public meetings is to close down the Wigwam Complex, which, along with a 9,000-seat basketball gymnasium, houses more than a dozen school administrative offices.
Boarding up the Wigwam would also essentially end a nearly 50-year legacy of packed home games and historic moments. The notion is part of one preliminary consolidation plan under review.
Assembled in 1962, the Wigwam's brown bricks form the second largest high school basketball venue in the world, ranked behind the Fieldhouse in New Castle. (Both the Fieldhouse and Wigwam made it onto a 2004 list by USA Today of the nation's best spots for high school hoops.)
John F. Kennedy spoke at the Wigwam, and more than 6,000 people met there last spring to see then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
Thom Earl, a 1964 Anderson High School graduate, called closing the Wigwam "a horrible idea."
"You've got the finest gym in the world," he said. "You probably should use it."
The Wigwam "is a historic and famous high school basketball venue," said Ron Hecklinski, who has coached the Anderson High School Indians boys basketball team for 16 years.
"The Wigwam is Anderson," he said. "It should be revered."
The possibility of it closing hasn't disrupted Hecklinski's staff or team, he said, because they strongly doubt it will actually happen.
"If we no longer play basketball at the Wigwam, I will no longer coach the Anderson Indians," Hecklinski vowed.
Keeping the Wigwam dark and turning down the heat would have a noticeable impact on the Anderson Community Schools' bottom line.
Stacey Windlan, an outspoken parent at recent ACS budget workshops, said she was glad to see the Wigwam make it onto the list of possible closings.
"I was just grateful that they were coming up with other scenarios that will eliminate $5 million," she said.
Instead of only looking at closing elementary and middle school buildings, Windlan said, ACS needs to seriously considering shutting the Wigwam because its utility bill is the third highest in the school corporation, coming in behind the two high schools.
The school district paid $348,617 for utilities at the Wigwam in 2008, about half the cost for either high school and twice the cost of the city's largest elementary school.
Kevin Brown, business manager for ACS, said closing the Wigwam and minimizing its utility needs would eliminate about 90 percent of last year's bills.
The revenue the Wigwam generates is small compared to its upkeep costs.
In 2008, ACS earned $7,780 from 11 events held at the building. The school district earned $335 from Clinton's March campaign stop.
The Wigwam serves as the base for 90 ACS staff members, including top administrators, instructors who work with multiple schools and a 20-person maintenance crew that serves the entire school district.
Superintendent Mikella Lowe said while closing the Wigwam wouldn't directly lead to large personnel cuts, the central office is considering ways to downsize in light of the budget situation.
"Especially if we do some major consolidations," she said. "Because if we have fewer buildings to get to, we can do that with fewer staff."
The preliminary consolidation plan that closes the Wigwam moved ACS administrative offices to Robinson Elementary, which would also close under the option. Robinson is located just a few blocks from the Wigwam, but Lowe said the central offices could move to any location.
Also undetermined is how much money the school system could save by moving the offices but keeping the Wigwam's gymnasium up and running. Lowe said that's a possibility that some people have suggested, and administrators are putting together numbers to see how much money such an arrangement could save.
The decision makers
Hecklinski said he had faith that the leaders in Anderson schools would see the value of keeping the Wigwam up and running.
"We have very intelligent people who make decisions for Anderson Community Schools," he said, "and I know they know the historic values and the traditions that Anderson has, and the Wigwam is a big part of that."
The final decision will be up to the school district's seven board members, but they're waiting on a recommendation from a special advisory panel tasked with helping ACS determine how best to trim $5 million, or roughly 5 percent, from the district's annual budget.
The advisory panel has gone through two months of meetings where the public was asked to suggest cost-saving measures. That's where parents, many fearing their child's elementary school would close, asked the panel to also consider closing the Wigwam.
Don Volk, the panel's vice chairman, said panelists were still mulling over feedback collected during the workshops, which included comments for and against closing the Wigwam.
The panel will give its final recommendation to the school board after a fifth set of workshops that begins Wednesday. Volk said he couldn't speculate on whether the panel will ultimately call for the Wigwam's closing.
"That's a major thing for the community to absorb," he said. "I wouldn't have a feeling right now whether it's a go or no go."
School Board President Teddy Bohnenkamp said board members were awaiting the panel's recommendation, but she expressed some concerns over closing the Wigwam.
"If we shut it down, what do we do? Do we just let it deteriorate?" Bohnenkamp asked.
ACS has struggled to sell smaller, unused properties, she said, so selling the Wigwam would likely be difficult.
No one questions that the Wigwam holds much smaller crowds for basketball games than it did decades ago. Anderson High School Athletic Director Stephen Schindler did not respond to phone calls requesting attendance figures.
Bohnenkamp didn't want to rule out the possibility that someday the venue might again be in high demand, and she questioned the idea of entirely razing the structure.
"If our glory days of Anderson come back, maybe not in my lifetime but in my grandchildren's, that's not a wise move to demo a structure like that," she said.
"We used to get 9,000 people in there and you sat in section XX. It's a building that I have no idea what the astronomical cost would be to reproduce."