Athletic Building Boom Pervades Ala. Campuses

Fri June 26, 2009 - Southeast Edition
John Zenor




AUBURN, Ala. (AP) Dozens of construction workers toil away daily amid the constant thrum of heavy machinery at the site of Auburn’s future basketball arena, with cranes looking down on them instead of fans.

It’s an increasingly familiar scene in the state at universities like Auburn, Alabama and some day fairly soon Troy, where the business of building and improving athletic facilities is booming despite an economy in recession.

All three are spending millions on new basketball arenas or expanding football stadiums at a time when many companies are pinching pennies and tuition is increasing by double digits. Administrators at the schools said it’s just good business, with cheaper materials and more competition making it a cost-efficient time to build.

Auburn and Troy are replacing aging basketball facilities, while Alabama is taking advantage of a waiting list of 10,000-plus for football tickets to push Bryant-Denny Stadium’s capacity to 101,000.

“Athletics is the front porch of the university,’’ Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs said. “The success of athletics has an impact across the nation for Auburn.’’

Auburn trustees cleared the way to build the arena for an estimated $93 million in June 2007, five months before the recession began, though the actual cost is projected to be $9 million less

Troy and Alabama have also taken the financial plunge in recent months.

In Tuscaloosa, Alabama is adding 9,000 seats and 36 sky boxes to Bryant-Denny. Athletic director Mal Moore has estimated the cost at $65 million, about $15 million below the original estimate. Nick Saban’s program was buoyed by a 12-0 regular season but the waiting list for tickets was already more than 10,000 last fall.

Saban said it makes good economic sense.

“It’s going to make Bryant-Denny Stadium probably, if not the best venue in college football to play a football game, it’ll be in the Top 5, for sure. I think that’s fantastic,’’ he said.

“I don’t think it takes away from anything else. So when we do things like that, we’re creating jobs. We’re creating things, and we’re not taking away from anything else. We’re not spending anybody else’s money. This is our budget. It’s what we do. We’re responsible to have quality so that we can continue to grow our business.’’

Troy trustees have approved bonds worth $31 million for a new 5,000 to 6,000-seat multi-purpose building to replace Trojan Arena and another $19 million for a new dining hall and fraternity village.

The UA and Auburn projects’ funding is generated by the athletic department, not the university.

“It’s really important to us that we’re not using any state appropriations, we’re not using any tuition money,’’ said Finis St. Johns, president pro tem for the University of Alabama System’s board of trustees. “This is going to be paid for strictly out of athletic department revenues.

“Believe me, we carefully considered the economic situation, but we went back and checked with all the people on the waiting list for tickets and boxes and determined the demand for the seats that we’re adding is there. If that is true then this is not a money-spending exercise, it’s really a money-making exercise.’’

It’s certainly good for the construction workers and their companies. Some 150-160 workers locally and from nearby cities are typically on-site each day working on the Auburn arena, and that number could rise to 300 near the completion, said Andrew Francolini, senior project manager for Birmingham-based contractor Robins & Morton.

There are some benefits to the timing. Materials costs are declining and there’s increased competition for the available jobs.

“If you’ve got the time and money,’’ Francolini said, “now’s the time to build.’’

Still, the universities are pumping money into athletic facilities after Alabama raised tuition 12 percent last year and Auburn had an 11-percent hike. Troy boosted tuition 31 percent for some undergraduates.

Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs said if he had known where the economy was headed before trustees unanimously approved replacing Beard-Eaves-Memorial Coliseum, “I wouldn’t have changed anything.’’

Auburn added $3 million in extras, such a more expensive surface for the concourse, after the projected costs came in $12 million lower than anticipated.

Jacobs said Auburn has raised three-quarters of its $15 million goal in pledges and gifts, including a $500,000 contribution a couple of weeks ago.

Troy athletic director Steve Dennis said a new facility for basketball and other uses was needed. A donor gave $1 million recently, he said.

“It will save the university tons of money in the future, because labor costs are down, material costs are down,’’ Dennis said. “Over the next 3-5 years, there’s no telling where the interest rates will be, there’s no telling where construction costs will be. There’s no telling what will happen.

“It’s all about timing and at this point in time it’s a very prudent investment that our leadership’s made.’’

Other, smaller athletic facility projects in the state include a $2.2 million renovation of Mobile’s Ladd-Peebles Stadium, which will host South Alabama’s home games starting next season.

The Birmingham City Council has approved $7.5 million for a Negro and Southern Baseball League Hall of Fame and renovating Rickwood Field.