Thursday, June 16, 2016

UPDATE: UA Board approves Razorback Stadium expansion over Pryor objections

Posted By and on Thu, Jun 16, 2016 at 9:01 AM

click to enlarge APPROVED: North End expansion.
  • APPROVED: North End expansion.
click to enlarge PUT STUDENTS FIRST: David Pryor, in opposition to stadium expansion.
  • PUT STUDENTS FIRST: David Pryor, in opposition to stadium expansion.
UPDATE: The University of Arkansas Board of Trustees voted 8-2 this morning to approve a $160 million expansion of Razorback Stadium, a proposal backed by Athletic Director Jeff Long and administrators that includes a $120 million bond issue backed by athletic revenue (though other money would presumably have to be found if that source fell short).

Trustee David Pryor, long in opposition, was joined by Cliff Gibson of Monticello in voting against the proposal. Other trustees are Reynie Rutledge of Searcy, Morril Harriman of Little Rock, Mark Waldrip of Moro, Ben Hyneman of Jonesboro, John Goodson of Texarkana, Sheffield Nelson of Little Rock, Stephen Broughton of Pine Bluff and Kelly Eichler of Little Rock.

Pryor came out swinging before the meeting with prepared marks given to other board members last night.

It said the expansion  did not put students first and he's heard from virtually no one outside its primary backers in support of the project.

Pryor wrote that he wanted to deliver the "salient" parts of his arguments in advance of the discussion — not to "lobby," but to "simply share one trustee's belief as to the wrongness of going forward with the North End project." He decried the "nuclear arms race" of big college athletics and urged the board to demonstrate a commitment to other priorities.

...Some months ago I proposed that we adopt the "cost/benefit test" as we proceeded to decide this project. As you know, the stadium expansion will be the largest bond issue in the history of higher education for the state of Arkansas. It is a monumental commitment of resources, and to some extent, our Board will be establishing by our support that a few luxury boxes and special seats in a football stadium used six times a year is the highest priority for the institution we all revere and serve. I personally do not believe this project is the highest priority for the University of Arkansas.

There is a great applause line we all hear and sometimes ourselves repeat: "We must always put students first."

The stadium expansion does not put students first. In fact, the some 26,000 students on the Fayetteville campus will not benefit one iota. There are no extra student seats added. In fact, there are no general admission seats added — but only some 3,000 "special seats" for those fans in upper income levels.

Not one student has contacted me to express support for this project. To the best of my knowledge, not one student organization, alumni group or chapter, or booster club has voiced support for the North End expansion. To the best of my knowledge not one sport writer or newspaper has endorsed this expansion. In fact, I have received several hundred e-mails, phone calls and citizen expressions of opposition to this mammoth bond issue which obligates the entire state of Arkansas to support a "chosen few" fans to enjoy an "enhanced game day experience."

Between 2009 and 2013, our Board chose to support several athletic program projects, establishing a deeper footprint in the southwestern quadrant of our campus. In 2013, we voted on the concept of enlarging and improving the North End. At that time, the estimated cost was not the $160 million price tag of today's proposal, but $78 to $95 million. I have yet to see how this enormous cost escalation has occurred in such a short time. There has been no explanation.

It is now estimate that "only" $120 million will be required of bonded indebtedness, given that $40 million of private funds can be applied to the expansion. Assuming a bond issue of $120 million, the 20-year cost of principal, interest and servicing fees, we are facing an obligation of approximately $186 million dollars!

... We have just raised tuition, thus adding to the backbreaking debt load our students and their families bear. With state funding for higher education stagnant, where do we get the dollars for future classrooms for the fast growing student population? How do we equip our labs and find scholarship support? Can we continue being in last place in faculty salaries, according to the Southern Regional Education Board (176 southern states)? Are we to accept as a given fact that we are 45th in the nation of those states with the lowest percentage of college degrees? And is our answer to these and many other questions going to be, "Let's use our resources to add 3,000 luxury boxes and high end seats for our football stadium?

Some have recently said that this addition will help with "recruitment" in enticing prospective Razorbacks to Fayetteville. Do any of us actually believe that an 18-year-old potential from Conway, Judsonia or Smackover really cares or is impressed by the fact that we have 75,000 stadium seats rather than 72,000?

The Athletic Department states that the expenditure of $160 million on the stadium's north end will enhance the "game day experience" for Razorback fans. Will two new elevators, a new Broyles Center, a multi-million videe board in the south end, adding some 3,000 new luxury seats truly add any benefit except for a privileged few?

Should we ever decide to issue bonds for classrooms, labs, scholarships, tuition or faculty salaries, count me as a supporter.

A South Arkansas banker e-mailed me that this project is "ill advised." Another wrote: "How many student scholarships could we provide with these millions of dollars?" Several former University Trustees have recently stated their opposition to the North End expansion.

In some 8.5 years as a trustee, I have voted for many bond issues, every tuition increase and all athletic facilities proposed by the Athletic Department.

I cannot support this proposal. It makes no sense. In fact, it defies common sense and fairness that has always been a part of the Arkansas character. Well known and respected sports writer Nate Allen recently added some true wisdom to this discussion: "Reserve the Razorbacks just for the rich and they become a brand who fewer can afford and for which they will lose their passion."

In America, college football has become a nuclear arms race. Yes, it is BIG BUSINESS. Fancy stadiums, outlandish salaries, luxury amenities. We all know that. On this vote, we now have a rare chance to become the school that takes the bold step of stating what our priorities are really all about.

I look forward to our Thursday discussion of the stadium issue. You have been kind to read these comments and to hear me out — and I am grateful.

The Athletic Department had a multi-media show planned in support of the project. It was presented as a PowerPoint.

Here's the full presentation in PDF form.
Tom Coulter, who was at the Board meeting at Petit Jean, files these notes on the Board discussion:

UAF Chancellor Joseph Steinmetz began the meeting by endorsing the stadium plan. He said athletics were important to campus morale and no money came from student or tax dollars.

Athletic Director Jeff Long said the project would benefit 70,000-plus fans and not take away from funds going to students. He said the athletic department was in a strong position financially, with some $63.6 million of $105.7 million in total department revenue coming from football. He said the current debt will stand at $56 million at the end of 2016. His exhibit indicated debt was low at UA in comparison with some other schools and an accelerated payback schedule would save millions.

In 2015, virtually all special seats in suite and club sections are sold out, he said. He didn't report on sales of the "founders' suites" that are to be created in the expansion and raise a portion of the project cost, $120 million from a bond issue. He also emphasized no public or student dollars would be used.

Pryor touched on most of the talking points in his prepared remarks, but also asked whether the plan could impact other schools in the system. He insisted the project couldn't be justified given other needs. "It's not about scholarships," he said. "It's not about keeping kids in school and it's not about recruitment for the Razorbacks."

He also said, echoing a familiar bit of political rhetoric,  “When they say it’s not about money, this is about money." He said that emphasis and rising costs could cost people to "lose confidence, lose faith and lose interest." 

Trustee John Goodson said he'd been caused to "pause and reflect" on points Pryor had raised. But he said a vote against the plan would be a vote of "no confidence" in leadership. (This rang hollow from a trustee who went against the recommendation of UA System President Bobbitt and every chancellor when he voted to allow guns on campuses.) His remarks included a reminder of Long's decision to fire a successful football coach, Bobby Petrino, after an accident involving a mistress on the Athletic Department staff.

Trustee Hyneman, in endorsing the project, also emphasized that no tuition money goes to athletics.

Gibson raised cost-benefit questions and for specifics on expenditures of the bond issue.

Rutledge said there was a need for the new elevators and improved security and said most of the money would go to the general contractors. He said of Long: "He has never compromised the integrity of our university." He also said the improvements would likely occur in any event, if in installments rather than in one large project.

Long said the bonds likely would be issued in the fall.

Here, by the way, is the Athletic Department's PR pitch.

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