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Northeast High's Challenge Ropes Course reopens

Northeast High School junior Colin Shumake, 16, climbs the rock wall of the Challenge Ropes Course on its reopening this month. Common Ground Adventures manages the course. 

CHERIE DIEZ | Times

Northeast High School junior Colin Shumake, 16, climbs the rock wall of the Challenge Ropes Course on its reopening this month. Common Ground Adventures manages the course. 

ST. PETERSBURG — It sits on a 10-acre lot and features a rock climbing wall and activities called Mohawk Walk and Wild Woozy. Two 45-foot towers are connected by a zip-line and one has a high-wire.

Kathryn Sexton hoisted Dakota Weaver 45 feet in the air. The teens didn't know each other very well before then but in a matter of hours they were working as a team.

"We could definitely use this for the soccer team," said Sexton, 17 and captain of the team. "We have teamwork issues."

After languishing unused for two years, Northeast High School's Challenge Ropes Course — what may be the only such course on school property in the Tampa Bay area, say experts — finally reopened for business last week.

The Pinellas school district has contracted with Common Ground Adventures, a private company, to manage the course and supervise students using it.

Northeast High students and staff can use it for free, but other schools that want to use the course to build communication and leadership skills must pay $25 per student.

Common Ground, which expects to charge private businesses or government groups $75 to $125 a person to use the course, pays no rent and keeps the profits. The company will carry $2 million in insurance, pay operational costs expected to be a few thousand dollars a year, and provide the district with financial and safety reports.

School officials called it a win-win as they celebrated the course's reopening this month.

"We don't have the human capital or experience to do this ourselves," said Kevin Hendrick, Northeast High's principal. "We're not looking to make money from it. We are just looking to make it available … to anyone who wants to use it."

The course was refurbished with $2,500 raised by the classes of 2007 and 2008, Hendrick said.

Schools spokeswoman Andrea Zahn likened the arrangement to vendors who snap graduation photos or sell caps, gowns and rings in schools. They keep offices on school property from which they also conduct other business, she said.

The deal runs through 2013. Board approval was not required because the contract is for less than $25,000.

Common Ground owner Mark Lindsay said he is losing money by hosting other Pinellas schools students at $25 each, but is happy to do so. "This is not going to be about us making money," he said. "We see this as a service to the community."

The St. Petersburg company also operates challenge courses in Ellenton and Crystal River. "The key is that this is not our marquee course, so we can look at this as an extension of what we do," Lindsay said.

Bob Ryan, safety and risk management director at Project Adventure, a company that builds ropes courses and trains groups to run them, said he was unaware of another public school that had hired an outside company to manage a course.

Typically, a school will have a simple course and train some of its physical education staff to run it, he said.

The University of Florida, for example, has a teacher-operated challenge ropes course open to students and the public.

"This needs to be highly supervised," said Stephen Sanders, director of the school of physical education and exercise science and the University of South Florida in Tampa. "This requires special training."

That's why the course sat vacant for two years, said Kathy Gregg, an administrator at Northeast Community School who in 1998 helped conceive the course and is helping oversee it.

From 2005 to 2008, an outdoor education company called Pathfinder ran the Northeast facility under a similar contract with the district. Along with students and teachers, Pathfinder hosted the Coast Guard and the St. Petersburg Police Department.

Pathfinder executive director Betsey McFarland said her company could not make the course profitable to outside groups, in part because it lacks the ambience of a location in the woods with a conference center.

Built by money donated by the Junior League of St. Petersburg 12 years ago, the course is on a lot behind Sexton Elementary School adjacent to Northeast High.

There are three main structures made of weather-treated telephone poles, steel cables and high-grade rope. The parking lot is grass and the restrooms are portable toilets.

Still, school officials are hoping Common Ground can find success where Pathfinder did not.

"We expect them to make money off of it," said Gregg. "That has to take place so that they can make enough money to stay in business."

Researcher Will Gorham contributed to this report. Luis Perez can be reached at lperez@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2271.

Northeast High's Challenge Ropes Course reopens 05/16/10 [Last modified: Sunday, May 16, 2010 11:08pm]
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