U gives up on rec center

The student government and administration threw in the towel on the rec center proposal Monday.

U representatives elected not to bring the request for a multi-million dollar bond before the Capital Facilities Subcommittee at the Legislature during its final meeting of the 2006 session on Monday, effectively ending the push for a state-issued bond.

“I’m disappointed…and I am stunned at the Legislature’s disinclination to credit the precise democratic process to which they, themselves, think so highly of,” said U President Michael Young of the committee’s vote against the student-supported rec center.

The project would have added a 14,000 square-foot weight and fitness room, a rock climbing wall, a juice bar and a social lounge to campus through a state bond that the U would have paid back through an estimated $60 per semester increase in student fees.

Student representatives lobbied legislators on the committee for more than a week before deciding to drop the proposal.

“We were a couple votes short,” said student body president Ali Hasnain, who added that the U needed to prove to committee Chairman Gregg Buxton that they had enough votes for the center to pass before he would agree to reintroduce the project.

Lawmakers’ concerns

Essentially, the rec center died because the Legislature “didn’t want to spend public money on a facility that was questionable in terms of its value to the public, and that competed with the private sector,” said Rep. Ralph Becker, D-Salt Lake, who voted to approve bonding for the rec center.

Several lawmakers said they didn’t like the approach the U was taking of paying back the requested bonding via student fee increases.

“It’s a significant per student increase in fees…and we’d be committing students for the next 30 years,” said Rep. Roger Barrus, R-Centerville.

Rep. Michael Morley, R-Spanish Fork said he was concerned about the way the U planned to pay back the bond.

“If the students are that willing to participate in their education, then we probably ought to raise tuition and use those funds where we prioritize the need,” Morley said. “If we were to fund the other buildings in this sort of fashion, there would be an outcry against it, yet because this is something that was a brainchild of the student council, it seems to be OK.”

Morley said the process through which students and administrators were seeking funding for the project was unfair.

“We (would be) circumventing the legislative process by basically approving a bond and leapfrogging over many other state priorities that have been up here trying to make a case for their particular need-some of them for three or four years,” he said.

Barrus added that some committee members felt not all-or even the majority of-the nearly 29,000 students on campus would use the rec center, leaving most fee-paying students to subsidize a project that benefits the minority.

Morley said the U is already getting substantial funding for other projects, including the ongoing Marriott Library renovation and the addition of a west wing at the University Hospital, which was both presented and approved at Monday’s meeting in less than 10 minutes.

Some lawmakers said the rec center would have had a better chance of passing if U representatives had named donors.

“I think if they would have come with substantial private investment, there probably would have been a better reception for it,” Morley said.

Young clarified in an August 2005 meeting with the Board of Regents that part of the facility would be paid with outside donations, so the net fee increase per semester, per student, would have been $47, not $60, according to the meeting’s minutes.

But when lawmakers asked Hasnain and student body vice president John Poelman for donors’ names in a committee meeting Thursday, Jan. 26, they gave none.

Young said he told the Legislature several times that the U would not have begun the project until they had necessary donations, but he said he wasn’t worried about obtaining them because the university has always over-raised money.

Barrus downplayed the donor issue and called it a “chicken or the egg” phenomenon. He said lawmakers sometimes wait for donors before they appropriate funding to a project, but donors likewise tend to wait until the Legislature appropriates funds before they promise donations.

Rep. Wayne Harper, R-West Jordan, said the U should go through Gold’s Gym or 24 Hour Fitness for a facility.

Young disagreed and said, “Privatizing is not an option. It’s not a good idea. These companies have expressed no interest in doing so. Gold’s Gym actually supports the rec center because they realize everywhere else it’s happened, students have developed lifelong habits and joined their gyms in much higher percentages.”

Legislators in support

Some of the lawmakers on the Capital Facilities committee said they supported the rec center, mainly because of the potential for community building, and because students were willing to pay for it.

Rep. Becker is an adjunct professor at the U who said the Field House functions fine for his purposes. However, because students expressed a desire to have and pay for the rec center, he said he is a strong supporter.

He agreed with Young’s view that a rec center would establish campus community at this commuter school.

“The rec center with its multiple types of facilities really would help bring students and the campus together,” he said.

Young’s argument, all along, has been that the rec center can be a learning tool.

“The studies that have been done leave little doubt that students who use these recreation centers, if they start with GPAs slightly lower than average, end up slightly higher, and they take higher course loads,” Young said. “These are high quality educational tools, not just climbing walls.”

Rep. Fred Hunsaker, R-Logan, said rec centers have become the gathering place for students around the nation.

“The library was a place to come together when I was in school. When my kids were in school it was the student union building. Today it’s the student rec centers,” he said.

Becker said the donor issue should not have troubled the committee because the Legislature funds buildings “all the time based on commitments from other sources.”

“It seems like, unfortunately, there is a bias among some legislators, against the University of Utah. We’ve seen that expressed year after year up here,” he said.

Poelman said the U gave up because the push was hurting other U projects by annoying legislators rather than convincing them.

“It’s dead this year. We’ll wait and strategize for next year,” Poelman said. “It is not unfamiliar for a project to get stalled, but for such a simple request it was surprising.”

Five years ago, administrators sought funding for renovations to the Marriott Library. Their plea was struck down twice before it passed.

Hasnain said despite where they currently stand, the U intends to try again at the next available opportunity, most likely the 2007 session.

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Patrick Muir contributed to this article.