Staff Photos: Erin Evans Recreation Commission member Flemmie Pitts, left, and Director Tommy Hailey stand proudly in the middle of the newly renovated Wolverine Gym. The gym opened earlier this week.
COVINGTON — For the better part of a decade, sentimental sports enthusiasts have been dreaming of restoring the old Cousins gym to its former glory. This week, that dream became a reality.
Now called Wolverine Gym, the building was officially opened Wednesday after an extensive renovation. The Recreation Commission held its first basketball games there Thursday evening. Players took to the shiny new maple floors featuring a large Wolverine logo. The Wolverine was the mascot for Cousins High School, which served the black student population of Newton County in the 1960s. In 1965, the basketball team went undefeated and placed second in the state.
Now a new generation of players is enjoying the facility. The original bleachers were refurbished, and the locker and shower rooms have been converted into climate controlled storage rooms for baseball and football equipment.
The $750,000 renovation was funded through $500,000 in SPLOST revenues and a $250,000 grant from the Atlanta Falcons Youth Foundation. The initial cost estimates were $1.7 million, but there wasn't enough money, so Recreation Director Tommy Hailey, Denny Dobbs, chairman of the Cousins Community Center Board of Directors, and Randy Vinson, a member of the board, worked with contractors to bring the cost down. Much of the work went to local contractors, Hailey said.
The gym is not open to the general public at this time. It will be used for Recreation Commission basketball games and as the physical education facility for Challenge Charter Academy, located next door at the Cousins Community Center. The academy is providing janitorial services in exchange for use of the building.
The plan was to let the public pay a fee to use the facility, but right now that's not possible due to budget constraints, said Hailey.
"All that depends on whether we can afford to do that. We're not going to be able to rent it out without it being supervised," he said. The Recreation Commission is short on manpower, having recently laid off seven staff members.
Recreation Commission member Flemmie Pitts hopes one day the building will once again host community gatherings as it did decades ago when it was used for dances, gospel singings and other public events.
Pitts attended Cousins High School and his brother was part of the celebrated 1965 Wolverine basketball team. It's important to preserve the building for future generations, he said, noting that youngsters nowadays don't realize there was once a separate high school for black students.
The building had fallen victim to vandals in recent years, but is now back in top form. A trophy case will soon be delivered and will house memorabilia from the glory days. During integration, Cousins High School was converted to a middle school and the gym remained in use. But it sat abandoned for about a decade before renovations began. Workers found tell-tale signs of the building's prior use.
"They were redoing the bleachers I got a call saying ‘You need to come over here,'" Hailey said. "I got there and they pulled out a 5-gallon bucket and it was about three-fourths full of gum they had scraped off the bleachers."