March 1, 2015

SAC renovations: a debate four years in the making

SGA Student senators say they were blindsided by U of L administrators Feb. 24 when SAC renovations-due to begin this semester-were delayed and changed again. Administrators say they now have more money to plow into the project and may now remodel the entire building.

Students grilled U of L officials because the $9.4 million project has changed. The original plan was to transform the old gym into meeting rooms.

Student representatives argue that the 24,000 square-foot space needs to become meeting and convocation rooms for students, which they say is needed for the estimated 350 campus RSOs. The $9.4 million to renovate the old gym came from the student recreation fee. Wednesday was the last day for contractors to bid on the renovation.

Harlan Sands, senior vice president for finance and administration and chief operating officer, said U of L is developing a plan that will combine student fees and other funding to renovate the entire building. Sands said Kevin Miller from U of L Athletics, Associate Vice President for Business Affairs Mitchell Payne, and David Martin, the director of contract administration and procurement services, will contribute to the new renovation plan. Miller, Payne, Martin and Dean of Students Michael Mardis were present at the senate meeting.

“Do you want a better building?” Sands asked the senate, to which Graduate School Vice President Benjamin Leamon said, “We just do not want to have to pay for it.”

Leamon’s response resonates with the discussions between SGA and the university about the old gym space over the past four years.

In June 2011, the Board of Trustees unanimously approved the semesterly $98 student recreation fee. Minutes from the June 9 meeting state: “Once the SRC is open, the current SAC Intramural area will be programmed for ‘best use’ after consulting SGA leadership.”

In the fall of 2011, athletics offered SGA $2 million to turn the old gym space into practice space for cheerleaders, Lady Birds and the pep band. SGA Senate unanimously voted to not accept the $2 million in January 2012. SGA argued that, since students have been paying the Student Recreation Fee to transform the old gym since 2011, the space belongs to students, not athletics.

Two years later, President James Ramsey and Provost Shirley Willihnganz urged SGA to allow athletics to obtain three of the four basketball courts in the old gym. Last year SGA planned a campaign to keep the space for student use, and before the campaign began, the university agreed to allow the renovation to proceed as SGA intended.

When Sands began his position at U of L on Jan. 5 of this year, he saw an opportunity to remodel the entirety of the SAC. He mentioned limited space for student dining and outdated escalators as areas for the building’s improvement.

Sands, together with Mardis, did not present a visual representation of the renovations or an estimated cost.

“We had, at the table yesterday, senior vice presidents from our partners in dining and retail that are willing to come to the table and invest money – not your money, their money – so that they can offer a better experience,” said Sands.

They asked SGA to agree to a six-week delay to the renovations. In that time, they hope to put together a new plan with funding options for the entire building.

Adding six more weeks to a project four years in the making raised concerns at the meeting. Senators wanted to know who was investing in the SAC and why the university waited until Feb. 24 to present SGA with a new plan.

“I am just going to be blunt, because this is something that we have run into before,” said Graduate Senator Ryan Luke. “Is athletics trying to acquire this space?”

Dean Mardis said, “There is a need for athletics and a desire for more space. I don’t want to try to say that that is not part of it.”

Since Mardis and Sands could not offer an exact timeline for the expanded plan, senators wondered if students would have meeting and event spaces while the proposed renovations take place.

“Space on campus is priceless,” argues Luke. “We don’t have anywhere to go. $9 million – that is what the space is worth to us.”

After an hour of discussion, the Senate voted to give the 6-week extension to the University. In addition, they voted to require an updated business plan from the university in four weeks.

“There are always going to be great ideas presented, and obviously the larger the project the more a renovation or expansion is going to cost. I believe the six-week delay that senate approved was necessary to vent all options fairly,” said SGA President Monali Haldankar.

Mardis promised to return to the SGA Senate on April 7 to continue the discussion.

To read The Cardinal’s previous coverage about SAC renovations, click here.

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