On September 8th, University of Arkansas trustee David Pryor cast a “no” vote for the bond issue behind the largest stadium construction project in state history. Below is a detailed explanation of the former governor’s reasoning, as laid out in a letter earlier in the summer.
Ultimately, Pryor’s veto was in vain. By a vote of 6-2, the UA board of trustees approved the final step needed to launch the Razorback Stadium north end expansion. The other “no” vote belonged to Monticello lawyer Cliff Gibson. I got Gibson’s take on the issue here.
June 15, 2016
For our Thursday morning meeting, I have requested the opportunity to discuss my reasons for opposing the North End Stadium project for the Fayetteville campus. I write this letter to you and my other colleagues on the Board as time may not allow me to cover the salient points of my argument during the oral presentation before the full Board. I sincerely thank you for taking the time to read these thoughts and certainly hope you realize that my position is being taken after much thought, discussion and input. This is not an attempt to “lobby” you for your vote, but to simply share one Trustee’s belief as to the wrongness of going forward with the North End project.
Whatever the outcome of this important decision by the Board, I will honor your position and the reasons for your vote – regardless of whether you vote to approve or disapprove this enormous commitment for the State of Arkansas.
Some months ago, I proposed that we adopt the “cost/benefit test” as we proceeded to decide this project. As you know, the stadium expansion will be the largest bond issue in the history of higher education for the State of Arkansas. It is a monumental commitment of resources, and to some extent, our Board will be establishing by our support that a few luxury boxes and special seats in a football stadium used some six times a year is the highest priority for the institution we all revere and serve. I personally do not believe this project is the highest priority for the University of Arkansas.
There is a great applause line we all hear and sometimes ourselves repeat: “We must always put students first.”
The stadium expansion does not put students first. In fact, the some 26,000 students on the Fayetteville campus will not benefit one iota. There are no extra student seats added. In fact, there are no general admission seats added – but only some 3,000 “special seats” for those fans in the upper income levels.
Not one student has contacted me to express support for this project. To the best of my knowledge, not one student organization, alumni group or chapter, or booster club has voiced their support for the North End expansion. To the best of my knowledge, not one sports writer or newspaper has endorsed this expansion. In fact, I have received several hundred e-mails, phone calls and citizen expressions of opposition to this mammoth bond issue which obligates the entire State of Arkansas to support a “chosen few” fans to enjoy an “enhanced game day experience.”
Between 2009 and 2013, our Board chose to support several athletic program projects, establishing a deeper footprint in the Southwestern quadrant of our campus. In 2013, we voted on the concept of enlarging and improving the North End. At that time, the estimated cost was not the $160 million price tag of today’s proposal, but $78 to $95 million. I have yet to see how this enormous cost escalation has occurred in such a short time. There has been no explanation.
It is now estimated that “only” $120 million will be required of bonded indebtedness, given that $40 million of private funds can be applied to the expansion. Assuming a bond issue of $120 million, the 20-year cost of principal, interest, and servicing fees, we are facing an obligation of approximately $186 million dollars!
We will not just be endorsing a project costing $160 million but $186 million.
We have just raised tuition, thus adding to the backbreaking debt load our students and their families bear. With state funding for higher education stagnant, where do we get the dollars for future classrooms for the fast growing student population? How do we equip our labs and find scholarship support? Can we continue being in last place in faculty salaries, according to the Southern Regional Education Board (16 southern states). Are we to accept as a given fact that we are 45th in the nation of those states with the lowest percentage of college degrees? And, is our answer to these and many other questions going to be, “Let’s use our resources to add 3,000 luxury boxes and high end seats for our football stadium?”
Some have recently said that this addition will help with “recruitment” in enticing prospective Razorbacks to Fayetteville. Do any of us actually believe that an 18-year-old potential from Conway, Judsonia or Smackover really cares or is impressed by the fact that we have 75,000 stadium seats rather than 72,000?
The Athletic Department states that the expenditure of $160 million on the stadium’s north end will enhance the “game day experience” for Razorback fans. Will two new elevators, a new Broyles Center, a multi-million video board in the south end, adding some 3,000 new luxury seats truly add any benefit except for a privileged few?
Should we ever decide to issue bonds for classrooms, labs, scholarships, tuition or faculty salaries, count me as a supporter.
A South Arkansas banker e-mailed me that this project is “ill advised.” Another wrote: How many student scholarships could we provide with these millions of dollars? Several former University Trustees have recently stated their opposition to the North end expansion.
In some 8 ½ years as a Trustee, I have voted for many bond issues, every tuition increase and all athletic facilities proposed by the Athletic Department.
I cannot support this proposal. It makes no sense. In fact, it defies common sense and fairness that has always been a part of the Arkansas character. Well known and respected sports writer Nate Allen recently added some true wisdom to this discussion: “Reserve the Razorbacks just for the rich and they become a brand who fewer can afford and for which they will lose their passion.”
In America, college football has become a nuclear arms race. Yes, it is BIG BUSINESS. Fancy stadiums, outlandish salaries, luxury amenities. We all know that. On this vote, we now have a rare chance to become the school that takes the bold step of stating what our priorities are really all about.
I look forward to our Thursday discussion of the stadium issue. You have been kind to read these comments, and to hear me out — and I am grateful.