Multipurpose Center Set For Construction Despite Obstacles

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Ohio University is expected to break ground this summer on a $12.5 million athletics facility that is considered crucial for maintaining the university’s recent athletic success. But the groundbreaking will happen only after a series of delays, altered plans, and a controversial decision on using student fees to finance the building.

The Multipurpose Center, originally envisioned as a way to increase Ohio’s ability to compete in the football recruiting wars, is expected to open by Jan. 2014 on what is currently the outdoor practice field located next to Peden Stadium. When it opens, the 74,000 square-foot facility will include an artificial football practice field, a four-lane track, offices and storage facilities.

Only when it opens will the questions about who will have primary access to the building, and how much time students who are financing the building’s construction and upkeep, finally be answered. Meanwhile, the university has awarded control of the facility to Vice President for Student Affairs Ryan Lombardi, taking it out of the hands of the athletics department. The debate over using student fees to help pay for the building ($8.2 million will be used over the next 10 years) has become a hot political issue on campus, and the athletics department has issued a ‘no comment’ policy on the topic.

The idea for an indoor practice facility was originally brought up in Dec. 2004 when former Nebraska head football coach Frank Solich took the job as Ohio’s coach. In an interview with Sports Illustrated in 2012 Solich recounted his first thoughts on Ohio’s facilities. Coming from football powerhouse Nebraska, he was accustomed to some of the best facilities in the nation. Ohio, it was widely regarded, was home to some of the worst. Solich said he remembered thinking that things needed to change “immediately” if he wanted to grow Ohio into a winning football program. But when the recession started in late 2007, Solich’s dreams for better facilities were temporarily put on hold.

In April, 2008 Ohio announced the hiring of Jim Schaus, an athletic director with a history of bringing multi-million dollar projects to fruition, as the university’s new athletic director. During his nine-year tenure at Wichita State Schaus oversaw a $25 million “Roundhouse Renaissance” program that included renovation of the university’s basketball arena and creation of the Henry Levitt Athletic Complex, a compound of athletics-related facilities including a multipurpose center. Schaus, whose office declined repeated requests for comment, like Solich, also wanted to see better facilities at Ohio.

Schaus aggressively sought donations for the eventual construction of Ohio’s own indoor practice facility. Schaus orchestrated a campaign to raise the funds necessary for the construction of the multipurpose center, which he referred to as a “dream” the athletic department had, “had for many, many years,” in a video thanking boosters. In Dec. 2010 the project received a substantial gift when Ohio alumni Robert D. and Margret Walter donated an $8 million for the cause. Robert D. Walter, a former member of the Ohio Board of Trustees, founded Cardinal Health in Columbus and has since retired as CEO and Chairman of the Board of the Fortune 500 company.

Along with donations from other boosters, the funding for the Multipurpose Center was nearly complete by February 2012. Though the price wasn’t finalized when the fund raising process began, according to an article by WOUB, the final cost of the facility eventually rose to $12.5 million due to changes to the original plans. The athletic department originally said that construction would begin in April of 2012, but then the project was once again put on hold.

For the Multipurpose Center to become a reality, the school had to turn to students for help financing the costs. By early 2012 the athletic department had raised only $9.8 million of the then projected $11-11.5 million to build the facility according to a report from the Ohio University General Fee Committee. The committee, is made up of nine students and a university employee delegate, and reviews how money from the General Fee fund should be spent. The committee submits its recommendations to the Board of Trustees and President Roderick McDavis, who ultimately have the final say.

In the report, which stated the facility could benefit a variety of groups other than Ohio Athletics, the committee proposed two ways in which they would be willing to allocate General Fee funds to help make the Multipurpose Center a reality; under the condition that the indoor facility includes a track. In the first scenario, funding to help build the center would be provided by student fees if the full amount needed to construct the building with a non-regulation four-lane track, which would add an additional $1.5 million to the cost (eventually bringing the total to $12.5 million), could not be raised from alumni and other sources. In that case according to the report the committee would recommend using student fees to “cover the funding gap,” so long as no student fees were used to help with the maintenance costs.

In the second scenario, according to the report if sufficient funds were raised to build the facility with a four-lane track the committee recommended using student fees to “fund a portion of the building’s maintenance costs,” not to exceed more than the appropriate share of use by non-athletics groups. Early rough estimates of the costs by the committee had the first scenario costing a one-time fee up to $1.5 million and the second scenario costing an annual fee amounting to an annual fee of $145,000.

In the same report the committee implored the university to seek out alternative funding sources to offset maintenance costs and stated, “as a university facility, the committee feels that funding for this facility should be university wide and not placed solely on students.”

Eventually the athletic department was able to raise the $12.5 million necessary to build the facility, complete with the four-lane track. However, the donations will be made in installments over the next 10 years. To make up for the delay, the university has taken out a loan for the cost of the building, $12.5 million.

“In other words we don’t have the cash up front to pay for the whole facility, so we’re going to borrow the cash and each year we’ll pay it off using the money that comes in [from donors],” Lombardi said in a phone conversation.

With a loan in place, in a 2012 meeting between the General Fee Committee, Student Senate Executives and top Ohio University administrators, a decision was made on how to use student fees for the facility. According to an article in The Ohio University Post, it was decided that General Fee funds would be used to pay nearly $550,000 in yearly interest on the 10-year loan. The students and administrators at the meeting also agreed to use students’ fees to pay for the full cost of the building’s maintenance, in direct violation of the committee’s proposal several months earlier that student fees would only be used to finance a portion of the maintenance if they were not needed to finance construction.

“We went to that student representation group and asked them and talked through the options for how to pay for that,” Lombardi said of the decision to use student fees for the loan interest and maintenance costs. “That group was very comfortable with us using General Fee dollars for that.”

The committee was headed by then Student Senate President Kyle Triplett, who could not be reached for this story.  But current Student Senate President Zach George was also a member of the committee when that decision was made.

“You know, in all honesty I don’t even remember … I wish I could,” said George when asked how the committee came to the decision to use more student fees, in a way violating the conditions originally proposed.

The decision didn’t sit well with some students.

Matt Farmer, a junior at Ohio University who lost the recent election for Student Senate President opposed student fees being used for the facility. He said the decision to allocate more funds to the facility was made with no student input and was pushed through using “underhanded tactics.”

Around the same time of the meeting, control of the facility was awarded to Lombardi and Student Affairs in an attempt to ensure the facility is open to students from across the various organizations on campus, including ROTC, Club Sports, and students.

“The best thing that has been done is that the actual administration of this facility is not going to be the athletic department,” said Ohio University Sports Management professor B. David Ridpath via phone.

Ridpath is a nationally known expert on college athletics. He said that the Multipurpose Center is probably primarily intended to give the football team a place to practice. However, by branding it as a multipurpose facility and taking control out of Ohio Athletics’ hands, the facility should actually benefit all students. Ridpath said that the university had to make the facility available to all students to justify using student funds to help finance it.

Mid-major schools, like Ohio, are under immense pressure to keep up with larger schools that routinely dominate the major college sports, according to Ridpath. Small schools like Ohio have long been relegated to the back burner of the national radar with their teams rarely making a national television appearance. In 2010 the Ohio Bobcats got a taste of national exposure when the men’s basketball team, led by freshman point guard D.J. Cooper, knocked off Georgetown in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. The ‘Cats followed up that run two years later making it all the way to the Sweet 16 and capturing the nation’s attention in the process.

Three months before the basketball team’s Sweet 16 run, Solich’s hard work building the Ohio football program paid off with the school’s first ever bowl victory. The Bobcats won their second bowl game in 2012 and suddenly Ohio was looking like a growing athletic brand. The athletic department, headed by Schaus, felt the facility would be key to continuing the programs recent successes. He said just the promise of having the facility was undoubtedly having an impact of football recruiting, according to an article by WOUB in 2012.

Nearly 10 years after Solich first remarked that Ohio’s athletic facilities needed improvement and in the midst of a growing athletic program, Ridpath is cautious about the potential benefits of the Multipurpose Center. He admits it’s a valuable asset to the athletic department, especially to the university’s indoor track team, but wonders at what cost.

Ridpath said Ohio’s athletic department continually ranks in the top-20 in terms of most subsidized athletic departments in the nation, relying heavily on student fees. He sees Ohio’s attempt to keep up in the college athletics “arms-race” as having a potentially negative impact on the university as a whole.

“It’s kind of like a shot of a powerful drug,” said Ridpath. “You get it and it’s like, ‘Wow this is awesome. Good things are happening and I want to do more,’ and unfortunately we’re really kind of addicted to that high and we think if we pump more money into [athletics] something magical is going to happen.

“Largely it doesn’t and in fact you fall further and further behind money-wise,” he continued. “We’re going to continue to tax students, certainly at schools [at the] mid-major level, because student fee subsidies to athletics are rising at such an alarming rate.”

Finally, Solich is starting to see the upgrades to facilities he wanted. The locker rooms have been remodeled at Peden, the turf at the stadium is being replaced, and the coach is getting an indoor practice facility – with the controversial help of student subsidies. Later this summer construction on the Multipurpose Center is set to finally begin after years of overcoming obstacles including the national recession. If everything goes according to plan it will be open for use by Janurary 2014, but that won’t mark the end of obstacles the facility will face. The debate over using student fees to help build and maintain it will continue in the years ahead. Continued athletic success is the ultimate goal, but only time will tell if the Multipurpose Center will be key to that or a misguided attempt at keeping up in the college athletics arms race.