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Wandering UMass band pursues own space

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UMass Band Building

George N. Parks is the director of one of the largest and respected collegiate marching bands in the country. But you wouldn’t know it from looking at his office.

Parks and his Minuteman Marching Band, the “Power and Class of New England,” have been scattered in cramped, deteriorating facilities on and off the University of Massachusetts campus since 1997.

Parks’ office is located on the eastern end of campus, in the University Apartments building, which was deemed “substandard for housing” by the university, according to spokesman Patrick Callahan. The rest of the band is housed across campus at Grinnell Arena, formerly the university livestock arena and slaughterhouse.

Thankfully, said Parks, the university has come to the rescue with the promise of a new home.

In February, UMass committed $4.5 million to the construction of a new facility behind the Mullins Center, next to the field where the band practices.

Parks and his “Power and Class” are excited to be nomads no more.

“In 1997, we lost the Old Chapel, the forever home of the marching band,” said Parks, the band’s director for over 30 years. Due to deterioration of the Old Chapel in the center of campus, the building was deemed substandard by the university in 1997, leaving the “Power and Class of New England” without a permanent home.

Callahan could not confirm whether the Old Chapel or University Apartments had been legally condemned, but said both were “certainly substandard space for the band.”

Since then, the band’s primary base of operations has been the former livestock arena.

The facilities at Grinnell can only accommodate several dozen people at a time, nowhere near the band’s current 393 members. The building houses the drumline, color guard, many of the larger brass instruments and assistant director Thom Hannum’s office.

Building to fall

Parks’ office and the band’s music library are on the opposite end of campus and are in worse shape than Grinnell.

“It’s a building actually slated for destruction, once they can get us out of here,” he said of the University Apartments space.

While Parks splits his time between his office at one end of campus and the practice field on the other, band uniforms and other equipment sit tucked in storage five miles from UMass.

The band’s uniforms have been kept for years at Ideal Movers and Self-Storage in Hadley, about a 20 minute drive from the Grinnell parking lot. Parks said the storage fees come out of the band’s annual budget.

Staff manager Courtney Beard said the distribution of uniforms to the band’s members takes a volunteer staff of six to eight students “two full days to rent a truck, load the uniforms very carefully and find a place on campus to borrow for the week so they can sort them out, usually in the Fine Arts Center.”

And they do it all without compensation.

“You could not pay people to do what they do,” said Parks. “If you had people who were paid to do what these kids do every day, they’d have gone on strike already.”

Happy moment

For many members of the band, the new building is long overdue.

Stephanie Bosley, a clarinetist in charge of publicity and recruitment, remembers what she put up with as a freshman to perform with the “Power and Class.” Bosley didn’t have access to a car and so had to bring all her equipment back to her dorm each night.

“I would have to drag my sleeping bag, my uniform bag, my instrument up [Orchard Hill],” she said. “If it’s bad weather, people have to drag their stuff up. … It’s something that doesn’t seem like a big deal, but when you’re walking up at 2 a.m., it’s kind of tough.”

Parks said that kind of dedication is commonplace among band members. He cited their recent visit to Allentown, Pa., for an exhibition show, which was performed in the rain. The night before, members slept on a gymnasium floor.

“You show me somewhere else you’ll find 380 kids that would sleep on a gym floor just to perform the next day,” he said.

He’s hoping that dedication will translate to the marching band’s fundraising campaign, which is being kicked off publicly today, when the Minutemen football team faces Delaware at McGuirk Stadium.

The new facility, designed by Kuhn Riddle Architects in Amherst, will provide practice space for the entire marching band, storage facilities for all of uniforms and instruments and a lounge for band members.

The project is included in the 2009-13 Five-Year Capital Plan for the university, but hasn’t been approved yet by the trustees, according to Callahan.

Parks said that while he’s grateful the university is fronting $4.5 million dollars, final construction costs could be $8 million to $10 million.

The band must raise the rest before Oct. 31, when the bidding process for contractors begins, or drastic cuts will be made.

To do that, the marching band has initiated, among other things, the “1,000 for $1,000” campaign, asking alumni, parents, students and community members to pledge $1,000 for the new facilities. Parks said the marching band has been an integral part of the university community, bringing more and more prestige to the campus since he took the reins over 30 years ago.

So he’s asking them to give back. “We’re hoping the community can help us out and give these kids the home they deserve,” he said.

The band has already raised nearly half a million dollars from 330 private donors. It has several million dollars to raise before Halloween, but Parks has faith.

“I know we’re fighting upstream, but this band has always done that,” said Parks.

By S.P. Sullivan
Daily Hampshire Gazette
October 5, 2008