Stadium Update, October 1, 2012
I have to admit, it seems far longer than nine months ago that we began a conversation about whether it made sense for Colorado State to consider changing the location where we play football from Hughes Stadium to a new stadium located on our main campus. In those nine months, there’s been a lot of discussion, a lot of input, a lot of evaluation and consideration, and enough points of view to assure a robust debate of all the issues surrounding the topic. I want to begin by saying thanks to everyone who participated in some manner, even if it was only listening to someone else, in the discussion around this topic. Above all else, a university community cherishes the freedom to discuss, criticize, and debate ideas. And, through that process, we believe ideas are strengthened. I’m grateful to everyone who has played a role in the exercise of this belief as it applies to the stadium.
As I’ve reached my own conclusions about the stadium issue, I’ve also spent some time thinking about how best to articulate my position. I could spend a great deal of time digging into details on any number of aspects of the stadium discussion and we could also cite and then debate the applicability of various papers by various experts that have been published on some of these topics. I could have packaged my views neatly for easy media consumption and made some kind of definitive proclamation at the Fall Address last month. But in the end, I think that the thoughtful discussion that has taken place around this issue over the past year deserves a more thoughtful, albeit lengthy, response.
Most of the debates on most of the issues surrounding the stadium have been well-aired. There has been a variety of press coverage, there have been public sessions held by various groups and individuals, and there has been the backbone of any community discussion — 1-on-1 conversations. So I’m going to focus my comments on explaining where my thinking has ended up, and attempting to briefly summarize why — the arguments that seemed, to my mind, most cogent and compelling. In doing so, I don’t intend to rebut every argument or criticism that heads toward a different conclusion. Some of these arguments I’ve found very interesting and have spent a lot of time considering, others didn’t seem as on point to me as they did to the people who made them, and some I simply disagreed with. But each of them represents a valid exercise in discussion, even if I’m not going to use our collective time to respond to each of them individually. Similarly, for those of you new to this discussion, there are many diverse resources available at www.stadium.colostate.edu/. I invite you to read through it if you’re interested in the various discussions that have informed my decision.
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t make this point: I fully understand that people who care deeply about CSU can examine this issue thoughtfully and carefully and arrive at a different conclusion. In fact, people who I deeply respect have done exactly that. I respect those points of view and thank you all for them, even if I didn’t arrive at the same conclusion.
As this campus has worked through the challenges of the past four years, I’ve often said that the best way to do so was to keep our eye on the long view: What would be in the best, long-term interest of Colorado State University well after our time to care for her has passed? In the end, I found that to again be the most useful lens through which to view the stadium issue. I think if one could move forward 50 years to 2062, whoever has the privilege of serving as Colorado State’s president will be overseeing a significantly larger university — whether measured by faculty or staff size, student enrollment or the size of the physical plant — within a significantly larger Northern Colorado community. I imagine the university’s research will be stunning, there will have been tremendous advancements in how we facilitate and assess learning, we will still be Colorado’s school of choice and all aspects of diversity — from geographic to ethnic and everything in between — will have expanded. I imagine (or at least fantasize) that we’ll have solved the puzzle of affordable access while maintaining excellence — the promise of Land Grant universities since 1862. And I imagine the campus will be celebrating the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln signing the Morrill Act (which really did change the face of education and, in doing so, the world) and getting ready for the 200th birthday of Colorado State in 2070. Against this backdrop, I think a well-maintained stadium located on the main campus, now with decades of tradition behind it, would be a great benefit to the university, providing a familiar venue for athletics, graduations, freshman convocations, band days, and other large events. And so, with that long view in mind, I support our moving forward to attempt to build such a facility.
The reasons I have found compelling are not new. I like the idea of bringing people onto our campus: alumni returning to reconnect with the place they lived and learned, fans and their families coming to the campus around the event of a football game, and students enjoying an event — whether a concert or a commencement — in the space they call home for a wonderful, if short, period of their lives. Done well, such events can highlight our university and its mission and be an important and useful tool in our success — measured in very diverse ways.
But, I have yet to find a way to simply hop forward 50 years and arrive at a goal, skipping all of the difficult work that marks the road between where we are and where we envision going. In fact, it falls to us to build pathways to any future goal even without knowing where each turn in the road along the way will take us. And so we’ll approach this as every organization approaches a potential goal — by evaluating the opportunities and risks and taking every step we can to assure the risks are mitigated and the opportunities have the greatest possible chance of coming to fruition.
So in that process of evaluation, we began with the Stadium Advisory Committee. This group of people worked diligently under the bright light of intense public attention to arrive at the initial conclusion that building a new stadium on our main campus was feasible. In doing so, they identified issues that will require still more effort as we move ahead, and we’ll build on that work. I think these folks all deserve our thanks for their diligent efforts to assure that if we decided to build a new stadium, we would do so in a way that benefited our university over the long term.
In reading their report and looking over the issues myself from many perspectives, I’m convinced we’ve identified a location that, while not perfect, meets the requirements we set down, protecting the iconic green spaces of this campus, maintaining the key views and open feel of CSU, and leaving ample space for expansion of academic and housing facilities as our university continues to grow over time. I believe there are places to relocate the programs displaced by the stadium. In fact, I think we can build on some examples from other schools and use the space adjacent to the stadium to highlight the heritage of these programs; we’ll be looking closely at that as planning progresses. I understand that parking and traffic will be challenges that we’ll need to work closely with the city to address, but I return to the fact that larger universities with larger stadiums in smaller communities have solved such challenges, and I see no reason to think that we can’t solve them as well, particularly as we implement our parking master plan and continue to partner with the city on an array of alternative transportation approaches.
If the Stadium Advisory Committee concluded that we could build a stadium (and I agree), and if I’ve concluded that I think we should build a stadium (and I have), then one question remains: Can we?
And here we come, in my mind, to the most difficult aspect of this evaluation: the financing. The price of the new stadium is estimated, in nice round terms, at $250M. $250,000,000.00. $1/4B. Those are not typos. Those are very large numbers and so for any of us with a stewardship responsibility for this university, we should now be wide awake and reading very carefully. This does not include the potential addition of a $16M alumni welcome center that could be attached to the stadium. It does not include a $30M parking facility that is in our long-term plans, but which would need to be accelerated if the stadium were to be constructed. In the $250M figure are some estimates of infrastructure alterations and program relocation costs, but more work remains to be done in this area as well.
And I’ll repeat my statement that state general funds, student tuition or fees, or proceeds from any tax shouldn’t be used to finance the stadium. There is, of course, no shortage of ways in which one could finance such a facility. And as we move forward, we’ll examine every option available with an eye to what minimizes risk and maximizes the financial stability of Colorado State. But regardless of the financing approach, my initial reaction, based on the projections for revenues to support any debt that was financed, is that it would be difficult for me to justify any financing plan that didn’t fund at least 50% of the cost ($125M) via philanthropic gifts. Can we raise such an amount? Time will, of course, answer that question. And as we’re going about the business of fund raising, we’ll also be working to replace the projections of what types of seating could be sold in what amounts with commitments to purchase specific seating types. Having checked and rechecked the various projections, I’ll simply say that at the end of the day, what we actually do will speak more loudly than any projection from any source. If our seating commitments reliably support financing an amount greater than $125M, I’m willing to consider that, but before I would take any financing package to the Board of Governors for their consideration, I’d have to be extremely confident that the combination of philanthropy and financing against committed stadium revenues would cover the cost of the stadium. At this point, the clearest path that I can envision is $125M of philanthropic funds supported by stadium revenue commitments able to service $125M of debt.
To this end, at the upcoming meeting of the Board of Governors this week, I will be making the following recommendation: That CSU embark on fund raising efforts for a new stadium located on our main campus; that we continue to the next phase of planning, including the development of a program plan and an amendment of the campus master plan; and that I will not bring forth a proposal for financing to the Board for approval unless and until we have arrived at a scenario that meets the guidelines I laid out above, and one that is fully consonant with our long-term plans for the growth of the university.
We also need to be aware that a clock is ticking. Hughes Stadium is in need of maintenance, $30M over the next decade at a minimum. This cannot be deferred too long. It is my belief that if we have not identified a viable financing plan for a new stadium to take forward within two years, we will have to suspend these efforts and make some investments in assuring that Hughes Stadium remains a viable venue for Colorado State football.
The time that will be available to us as we move forward with fund raising should not be put to waste. We need to continue to work, harder than ever, with neighbors and our partners in the city to assure — to the fullest extent possible — that we have thought through and mitigated any negative impacts if the stadium is built. This is simple to say, but beneath it lies a great deal of hard work — work that this university will not shy away from because the relationship between CSU and Fort Collins has been so important and beneficial to both, and this is no time to turn our backs on the progress we’ve made in building a true working partnership.
Although that pretty much wraps up the summary of my thinking about our next steps, there have also been some side arguments that do, I think, deserve a line or two of comment. As is, in my opinion, too often the case in our modern discourse, the middle ground has been squeezed out of many of these arguments by polarizing rhetoric that tries to force one into picking an either/or outcome selected from the extremes of possibilities. This approach is a common tactic to “win” an argument, but the losers are all of us in that we miss the opportunity to explore reasonable alternatives around which common ground might be found and built upon. For whatever its worth, I want to offer a thought or two on some of the middle ground I think we’re missing in some of these discussions.
Some concerns have been expressed that building a stadium (or any investment in athletics) embarks our university on a path to a culture of “big athletics,” in which academics takes a back seat. While I understand this concern given abuses at some other institutions, I’ll simply say that I am not compelled by this argument because there is so much middle ground between where CSU currently resides in terms of athletic spending and prominence and the role of athletics at a mega-university. I believe we can improve — and indeed expect excellence in — our athletic programs, without losing our culture or our focus on who we are as a university and what we exist to do.
Similarly, there has been no shortage of arguments around the role of a new stadium in influencing the quality of the football team. Here I’ll repeat what I’ve said before — the stadium is a building, a physical object. I doubt it will magically make our players faster or stronger, and while a new building may help with recruiting, I imagine that the spectrum of opportunities, the bond between student-athletes and their coaches, and how potential recruits see themselves within the trajectory of a program are likely far more compelling factors in choosing where to go to school. Across the country, there are good teams playing in older facilities and bad teams in new ones. The quality of our student-athletes and our teams will be determined by much, much more than our facilities.
Having said that, I think there are ways in which new facilities can have a positive effect. The array of options by which to attend a game at a new stadium will be wider and more customer-friendly than at a facility that was designed and constructed almost 50 years ago. If we are able to pair successful teams with a new facility, I think the opportunity exists to not simply cover debt service and even controlled maintenance, but perhaps to provide some modest level of funding to athletics so as to limit the need for increased university subsidies. Time will, of course, tell if such a potential benefit becomes a reality, but it is an opportunity that would benefit CSU if it came to fruition and is, I think, worthy of consideration. Of course, additional uses of the new facility are possible and expected. CSU currently lacks for large, on-campus programming space, and so depending on a final configuration, we’ll be examining ways to get the most out of any new facility to benefit the university and the community beyond the six footballs games played there each year.
Many people have spent a great deal of time on the topic of university revenues that might be driven by the presence of a new football stadium. I’ve spent some time thinking about this myself and have even written and shared a thought or two on the subject. Again, I don’t believe one can make a formulaic linkage between athletic program visibility and something like non-resident enrollment; there are too many variables between the action and the outcome. I don’t believe for a second that many students would choose a university based on anything other than its academic quality, its academic programs, the feel of the campus and culture, and the value of their degree — that’s as it should be. But I do think, quantifiably measureable or not, it’s also reasonable to assume (based on common sense and the experience of other institutions) that positive visibility raises brand awareness, and athletics offer a very large visibility factor — one that can have a beneficial impact on non-resident student interest and eventually on our university’s bottom line, fiscal health and affordability for Colorado residents. Similarly, there are various analyses on the impacts of athletics on university philanthropy. I’m skeptical that we should build a new stadium if the desired outcome was to directly increase academic philanthropy, but I don’t find it hard to imagine a side-benefit where supporters of athletics might well being willing to step up to support programs and facilities in which they might take more pride.
Finally, there has been much discussion about Hughes Stadium. We find ourselves in the enviable position of having a stadium in which we can continue to play football while we go about the business of determining if we can successfully raise the funds needed for a new stadium. There is no doubt that Hughes has maintenance needs that we’ll need to address if we aren’t successful in moving forward within the next few years. The two problematic issues that I simply couldn’t overcome around the discussion of why we wouldn’t stay at Hughes were the off campus location (again, understanding that people of good will may well find that an advantage where I see it as a disadvantage) and the simple fact that it isn’t reasonably possible to redesign Hughes into a modern configuration capable of generating the revenue that could potentially be generated by a new facility. If we’re successful in funding and constructing a new stadium, we’ll then need to turn our attention to how best to utilize the land and facilities at the Hughes Stadium location. I’m optimistic we’ll find considerable opportunities to advance the quality of life in our community through the use of that location, but that’s a discussion for another day.
Tomorrow, CSU will, as usual, focus its attention on the reasons we exist: teaching and learning, research and discovery and creativity, service and engagement, and application. Tomorrow, nearly 27,000 CSU students who will eventually rise to the challenges of their day will be in our classrooms preparing themselves for that future. More than 1,500 members of our faculty will continue to focus on educating those students while also solving such challenges as food and water for 9 billion people, controlling infectious diseases, and generally advancing the condition of humankind. More than 5,000 staff members will go about the business of making this campus a wonderful place to learn and work. Tomorrow, I’ll again be giving a talk somewhere to some unsuspecting group about the on-going privatization of American public higher education and what that means for our legacy to the generations who will follow us.
Improving today. Preparing for tomorrow. Ideas put into action. Lives changed.
That, simply put, is the focus of a land-grant university. And tomorrow, Colorado State — stadium discussion aside — will be back at it.
Dr. Tony Frank