Years of work were completed Saturday as crowds filled the Gina Cox Center at Lonoke High School for the grand opening of the newly completed, $8-million multi-purpose facility. Before and after the ceremony, the people of Lonoke strolled the hallways and concourses for their first look at what could be the crowning part of the rebuilt campus.
Speakers on the day reflected on the center’s evolution from simply a replacement for the aging Lonoke High School gymnasium, into a comprehensive facility serving athletics, fine arts and the community.
Jim and Gina (Cox) Wiertelak were guests of honor for the event.
The Wiertelak’s million-dollar pledge in 2007 is credited for giving new life to languishing plans for a new athletic facility.
Gina Wiertelak is a member of the Lonoke High School Class of 1977, and was captain of the girls’ basketball team that took the state championship that year. A full-size 1977 picture of Wiertelak in her basketball uniform stood in front of the podium for the ceremony.
Speakers for the ceremony included the Wiertelaks, superintendent Suzanne Bailey, state Senator Jonathan Dismang, state Representative Walls McCrary, Lonoke Banking Center president Allen Evans, Chamber of Commerce executive director John Garner, former school superintendents Sharron Havens and John Tackett, school board president Darrell Park and former coach Jody Musgrove.
"Wow. We have been waiting for this day for six years. I cannot tell you how excited I am," Gina Wiertelak said.
"I want to thank God for making all these things possible," Wiertelak said. The list of people to thank is very long, "I won’t go through that again, you know who you are," she said.
"Isn’t this just beautiful?" Wiertelak remarked. Keeping the arches of the old high school is a fitting tribute to the service made by the school, she said.
She spoke of the lessons learned and the traditions made and kept by the school and community, especially through the support of the school’s teams.
"Our town loves the school, and our community is its strength," Wiertelak said.
Jim Wiertelak remarked that. "It is obvious that the Lonoke community has a lot of pride," he said.
"I have spent the last two days walking around … wait until you see the rest of the building," Wiertelak said.
In her remarks, Havens recalled when the Wiertelaks first made the offer of the donation to help meet the cost of the gym.
With the school board’s accepting the donation, "The stimulus for a new facility … was born in Lonoke," she said.
However, the academic needs of the students came first, and the gym was delayed while the new high school was built. Education to meet the needs of the 21st century could not be done in a school built in the 1920s, Havens said. "They understood that, although it took longer and longer to get that gym going," she said.
"But we got so much more than we ever envisioned," Havens said. The Center will serve athletes and musicians, provide dining space, and many community events, she said.
Havens said she graduated 47 years ago in the old gym. "This year, my grandson will graduate in the Gina Cox Center. It has been far too long in coming but the day is finally here," she said.
"This is a great day for all of Lonoke," Tackett declared. "This is a magnificent facility, and it reflects an investment in the future through the rich traditions of the past," he said.
"Is this not awesome?" Bailey declared on opening the remarks.
"I knew it would be great, but this is unbelievable," McCrary remarked. Credit for the center belongs to many individuals, he said. From the donation by the Wiertelaks "that got the ball rolling," to Lonoke residents who approved the millage "that got the job done," he remarked.
"What a great day for Lonoke and what a great day for the Jackrabbit nation," Dismang declared. "This is an incredible facility."
"There is something in the air at Lonoke," Dismang said. It is seen in the new interchange, expansion at Remington Arms, other growth projects in the area and especially the Center, he said. All the projects stem from the dedication of the community and the cooperation of everyone, he said.
"I really appreciate the example you are making to the rest of the state," Dismang remarked.
Evans spoke of the dedication of all involved, of the improvements made to Lonoke’s schools, and thanked the Wiertelaks for the donation that "kick-started" construction.
Consider what has been done in the district, Evans said. "We have this wonderful new Gina Cox Center, we have a brand new high school, we have a basically new middle school and elementary school.
"I have not a doubt in my mind that this school district is going to continue being a cornerstone for our community for many, many generations to come," Evans said.
"What an auspicious occasion this is," Garner remarked. "For the whole city of Lonoke, the administration at the school. It is a fine tribute to everybody involved … It is unbelievable, there is no other word for it," he said.
The Gina Cox Center is a 65,000 square-foot, $8 million multi-purpose facility centered on a regulation-size, wood-floor basketball court. Seating for about 2,000 is on two levels; there are a full cafeteria; band room, theatre/drama facilities including a scene shop with storage; locker rooms, laundry, and concession and hospitality areas. Graduation ceremonies will also be held in the arena.
Along with the Wiertelak’s pledge, Lonoke School District voters in 2011 approved a millage increase to fund the construction with a 74-percent margin.
Ground was officially broken for construction in March 2012.
Plans for the Gina Cox Center were delayed while the new high school was built. Design of the new high school and the Center reflect the design of the 1927 building that was replaced in 2011; the original triple-arch, high school entry facing Academy Street has been preserved, along with the flagpole and graduates’ walkway.
The new high school is a two-level, 74,000 square-foot building with more than 30 classroom areas designed to be easily adapted to technological changes. Construction costs were met through the state Facilities Division, for 55 percent, and a second-lien bond issue for the $4.1-million contribution by the district.