Saturday, December 3, 2011

Alabama trustee explains board’s stadium decision

image The University of Alabama - Birmingham is closing in on hiring a new head coach to resurrect its floundering football program. As that process wraps up (likely this weekend), most Birmingham and some national media types will attempt to remind people that the big, bad Paul W. Bryant Jr. and his merry band of puppets on the Alabama board of trustees are still working hard to screw the “little brother” program and keep it down.

Don’t buy that spin anymore, please. What follows is the full text of a letter sent from Alabama trustee Finis St. John to UAB Alumni Association President Janice Ward, explaining the rationale behind the board’s decision to withdraw support for a new on-campus football stadium. Rosy projections, poor planning, wishful thinking and political grandstanding aside…

UAB isn’t being denied a new stadium because Alabama wants to keep them irrelevant. UAB isn’t getting a stadium because its proponents haven’t done their jobs.

Janice B. Ward
UAB National Alumni President
1301 10th Avenue South
Birmingham, AL 35294-4555

Dear Ms. Ward:

Many questions have been asked about the University of Alabama System Board of Trustees' regarding the proposal to build an on campus stadium at UAB. The many people we have heard from, both in favor of and opposed to the proposal, are entitled to know the facts and factors we considered.

As a member of the board, chairman of the Athletics Committees and former President Pro Tem, I ask that you pass along my response to the issues which have been raised. While I believe that a large majority of our board agrees with these statements, some may differ on parts, so please accept this statement as my own. As members of the board, it is our responsibility to exercise our judgment in allocating resources to best serve the taxpayers of the State and students of our universities. We must set priorities and make choices.

To be clear, the proposal from UAB was to borrow $75 million to build an on campus stadium. (The original proposal was for a $30 to $40 million stadium. I have heard no explanation for doubling the cost.) While there has been discussion that $15 million has been raised, to my knowledge no such amount is in hand. The $15 million in up front money in UAB's plan is a projection - as are all of the figures in the business plan circulated by UAB.

Unlike the recent expansion of the stadium in Tuscaloosa for which there were firm commitments for season tickets and boxes sufficient to fully fund that project, UAB's financing plan is based on the hope that the new stadium will generate sufficient support to pay for itself. In other words, we were asked to spend $75 million in the hope that adequate financial support would follow, support which, to date, has never existed for football at UAB. If the projections are wrong, the stadium will be paid for from student tuition and by the taxpayers. One of the stadiums UAB points to as a model is Central Florida's Bright Field House Networks Stadium.

But according to UCF's official website:
"Construction and operation of Bright House Networks Stadium was funded through naming rights, revenues from suites and club seat leases, ticket and concessions sales, donations corporate sponsorships and advertising. No public money or tuition fees were used to build or run the stadium."

UAB's proposal is very different and obligates the University to pay using public funds. This kind of speculative funding is unprecedented in our system and raises great concerns. To be sure, in recent years there has been severe pressure on funding for all aspects of higher education. State support for our system has dropped by over 30% in the last few years. Just last year, UAB was forced to eliminate 300 faculty and staff positions. State revenues continue to suffer and unemployment is at extremely high levels. Tuition has been raised significantly. Our students and their parents work harder than ever to pay for college education. In the current financial environment, we must constantly be concerned about the overall debt load of our universities, their bond ratings and their financial integrity.

As a result, part of our job is to set priorities. UAB has to set priorities too. and they do so by formulating what is called a "FiveYear Facilities Development Plan." The five year plan allows time to carefully study proposals and prioritize spending. Projects on UAB's five year plan include a new College of Arts & Science building, renovations to numerous on-campus buildings, a new Bio-medical research building and new residence halls. We recently approved $40 million for construction of the new Callahan Eye Foundation Hospital - one of the leaders in this field in the Southeast. However, at the time UAB first announced plans to request approval for a stadium, the new stadium was not even in UAB's five year plan. So we were asked to decide on short notice whether we should bypass these other worthy projects which affect the health of our citizens and the well being of all UAB students, for a stadium which will be used only a few days each year.

There is also uncertainty about the future of other facilities in Birmingham. For years there has been talk of a dome. Legion Field's future is unclear. But to my knowledge, there have been no talks between UAB and city officials about cooperating to meet future needs. As taxpayers and citizens, shouldn't all interested parties discuss ways to work together toward a facility available to high schools, special events, bowl games and UAB football? Under UAB's plan, the stadium will be locked over 350 days a year. UAB is a national and world leader in many fields. The hospital and medical school are points of pride for everyone in our state. But in the last 10 years UAB has faced increasing challenges. In health research funding, UAB's national ranking has declined significantly over the last 10 years. The cancer and cardiology programs are no longer nationally ranked.

Changes in health care funding will require intense focus and leadership to maintain the excellence we expect from UAB. I would hope that everyone who cares about UAB and the people it serves will encourage UAB to make these matters of crucial importance to its students and the State of Alabama its highest priority. It has also been argued by political and business interests in Birmingham that the stadium should be built for the impact it would have on economic development in the city. Our universities are integral partners with the cities in which they operate. However, our first obligation is to manage the system to provide responsive, progressive and superior institutions of higher learning. We should be concerned about the impact our decisions have on their communities, but our highest loyalty is to the higher education of our students. With all due respect to the city leadership, we should not ask parents, students and taxpayers in Dothan, Decatur or Cullman to underwrite expensive projects for Birmingham's economic development. To those who do not believe that we support the sport programs at UAB, it should be noted that UAB already spends considerable resources on Division I athletics. In the last 10 years alone, with the board's approval, UAB's Division I men's and women's sports have cost the university over $100 million. But this spending has not produced the financial, fan and student support UAB projected, and the expenditures have consistently gone up. We simply could not justify taking even more money from research, teaching and service to support the plan as presented.

These opinions should not be seen as anything more than the exercise of our best judgment for the good of UAB, the University System and the State. And while we understand that a stadium would be good for the football program, we have the responsibility to look at all issues and the university as a whole. We can't build everything we want and we must focus on what is most important.

Our board appreciate your service to UAB and the interest and loyalty of your members. We look forward to working together for an even greater university.


Finis St. John


Anonymous said...

UAB Proponents have done their job. By removing the On-Campus Stadium (OCS) from the agenda, they were refusing to even discuss it publicly, which is wrong. It's not spin. Below, you will find an article, from the Birmingham News, which refutes most of the major points brought up in the Finish St. John letter.

It is also worth noting that, when Ms. Ward sent the letter out to the Alumni, as requested, there was a disclaimer that the UAB Alumni Society "does not endorse this letter nor do we agree with its contents, its facts or its conclusions."

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