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Johnny Vardeman: Gainesville football almost moved home from City Park
The Gainesville High Red Elephants began playing at City Park Stadium in 1916, but a plan for a new ballpark in 1970 next to the school was nixed by voters.

Can you imagine the Gainesville High School Red Elephants playing home football games any place other than City Park?

That’s where games have been played since 1916, when the park and field were completed. The city had bought the 50-acre tract from the Banks estate for $1,000 in 1886, but football games were played wherever they could find level ground, including a field in Chattahoochee Park at the end of Riverside Drive.

But in 1970, a movement started to build a football stadium beside the present Gainesville High School. The Lions Club, which has forever been a part of games at City Park, suggested the new stadium. It would have 6,000 concrete seats and all the amenities, including a new field house, restrooms and synthetic-surface track.

The project would cost about $475,000 and be financed by bonds, but would cause a tax increase estimated at between a half and three-quarters mill.

Banker Buford Battle chaired a steering committee pushing for the new stadium, and even Gainesville’s park and recreation board, which looked after City Park, was in favor of the proposal. So was Curtis Segars, Gainesville High school principal at the time.

Supporters were optimistic that a new stadium would be built. However, the matter was put to Gainesville voters in a referendum, and it failed miserably, 985-646. More voters voted in that December 1970 referendum than did in the city election two weeks earlier.

Perhaps it was the economy at the time. Or it might have been a rumor that City Park would be sold.

Gainesville has owned the park for 120 years. It has been the scene of horse shows, political rallies, barbecues, carnivals, band concerts, baseball and softball games, soccer, lacrosse, military displays and other events, including youth football and baseball.

The football field’s setting in a natural bowl protected from a busy street by stately hardwoods is admired by fans near and far who visit here. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in improvements have been made over the years. It’s a landmark with high visibility on Ronnie Green Parkway, at the northern end of historic Green Street.

1970 wasn’t the first time City Park was threatened for other uses. In 1916, just as it was completed and used for football games, some in the city wanted to build the new Gainesville High School there. That new school eventually opened in 1921 on Washington Street, where the Gym of ’36 office complex is today.

The first football game played under the lights at City Park was Sept. 23, 1938, when Gainesville beat Eastanolle 39-13.

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It was a busy fall in 1970 when it seemed people were going to the polls almost every week. The city election featured two radio personalities running for what was then called the commission. Jim Hartley defeated Bill Sellers.

In November, Democrat Jimmy Carter had beaten Republican Hal Suit for governor. During a campaign stop in Bainbridge alongside former governor Marvin Griffin, an ex-Marine knocked Carter a-winding after the candidate had tapped him on the shoulder to shake hands with him.

Lester Maddox won the lieutenant governor’s office, having already served as governor, an unprecedented occurrence. At the time, he could not succeed himself as governor.

Veteran Democrat Phil Landrum defeated Republican Bob Cooper, a Gainesville lawyer, for congressman from the 9th District.

That was the year, too, when the entire Hall County school board was ousted, but then reinstated after a court appeal. During the turmoil, groundbreakings were held for the new North Hall and East Hall high schools. Hall County voters approved by 2 to 1 to establish fire protection districts, leading to the county fire department we have today.

1970 also was when Brenau College started accepting nonresident males as students at the previous all-female school.

While there is some discussion today about consolidating local government, it was a hot topic that fall. For the first time, the five city commissioners and five county commissioners sat together in the same room to discuss merging some services, including tax assessors, sanitary landfill and planning.

Out of those meetings came the joint city-county administration building between City Hall and the old courthouse in downtown Gainesville. That building housed both city and county offices for years, but now contains mostly city offices as county offices moved to Brown’s Bridge Road several years ago.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times.