Amid escalating construction costs and rising tuition rates, colleges and universities still see strategic advantages in pursuing campus recreation projects.

As the dawn of the new century approached, West Virginia University found itself mired in the campus recreation dark ages - and without much elbow room. At that time, the school was offering 0.9 square feet of dedicated recreation space per student - among the lowest figures ever calculated by Brailsford & Dunlavey, a Washington, D.C.-based facility planning firm that specializes in such assessments. "That's one of those numbers that I will never forget," says WVU director of recreation Dave Taylor, a 37-year veteran of the institution. "I asked, 'What does 0.9 square feet of dedicated student recreation space even mean?' They said, 'Where you're standing. That's 0.9."

Where Taylor and his department stand today is another story. The $32 million West Virginia University Student Recreation Center, funded in part by a $90-per-semester student fee that has remained unchanged since the day the building's doors opened in July 2001, offers WVU's 27,500 students some 177,000 square feet of space. Taylor admits he has never done the math, but those figures equate to more than six times the space previously offered. Where students once had to share facilities with the WVU intercollegiate athletics and physical education departments - taking a backseat to both - they now lay exclusive claim to seven basketball/volleyball courts distributed between two separate gymnasiums under one roof. There are the requisite (by today's campus standards) climbing wall and hot tub, too, and enough space dedicated to recreational badminton - yes, badminton - to accommodate three regulation-size courts full time.

"It was an easy sell," says Taylor of rallying support for the long overdue facility, which had registered 4.1 million total visits through May 2007. "We had to go through a student referendum, but we passed it with 77 percent of the vote. That's pretty much a mandate."

College students everywhere are demanding more quality from their campus life experience these days, and robust recreation opportunities often top their list of expectations. At the same time, administrators have in recent years become increasingly attuned to the return their investment in recreation can yield. "I think there has been a real change in the paradigm of the informed student shopper. This is what the students are looking for," says University of Michigan recreation director Bill Canning, pointing not only to upscale recreation centers, but state-of-the-art residence halls, food service and IT infrastructure. "Administrators are taking a very hard look these days at the quality-of-life experiences of their students. You provide a better student undergraduate experience, you have a better chance of creating a more giving alum, and sooner."

That said, few on-campus capital improvements rival recreation center construction - and even renovation - as political powder kegs. "The context has changed substantially, just because construction costs have escalated so dramatically," says Brailsford & Dunlavey CEO Paul Brailsford, adding that average construction costs on college campuses have nearly doubled over the past decade. By no coincidence, so too have student recreation fees - to the point where per-semester recreation fees of $200 have become the norm. Reconciling what students want and need with what they can afford can be a delicate exercise. "The general approach is still to rely heavily on student fees," Brailsford says. "But because the required student fee is now much higher and the focus on managing the overall cost of attendance is much sharper, the decisions that are being made can feel a lot more painful."

Rather than robbing the campus building boom of all its thunder, however, these factors have fostered what could only be described as a "no pain, no gain" mentality among some college and university administrators. "If they're paying attention to the trend lines, they arrive at a point where they cannot comfortably say, 'We can't afford it now; we'll be able to afford it in two or three years,' because in two or three years the problem only gets worse," says Brailsford. "There's an urgency. Doing a project quicker, rather than putting it off, is really the response we're seeing."

Witness the events unfolding at Binghamton University in New York, where administrators are moving forward with plans to convert an outdated campus gymnasium into a contemporary student recreation center despite the failure of a 2005 student referendum on the subject. By a 55-to-45 majority, students said they didn't want their own fees raised by $169 to help bankroll the proposed $20 million project. "It was going to be a pretty big expense for students who come to a state university looking for a bargain," says Matt Zeidel, who served as editor-in-chief of the Pipe Dream student newspaper prior to his graduation this spring.

So BU administrators, who had invested $5,000 into an ill-fated "East Gym Extreme Makeover" campaign complete with web site and logo-bearing water bottles, regrouped. They presented students with three more-modest renovation proposals at separate town hall meetings in May, along with one important promise. "We told the students that their fee is not going to pay for the construction of this building," says BU vice president James Van Voorst. "We may increase fees for the operation of the building and the equipment inside the building, but we are not going to build the building on students' backs. And that has diffused the pushback."

But the controversy doesn't necessarily end there. How the university intends to finance the renovation without student fee support remains vague. "To be quite honest, we have not figured out exactly how we're going to pay for a $12 million building," Van Voorst says. "We're going to go through systematic design this next year and into the year after, and we're going to have to find ways - through the budget, through other funds, through donations - to package this building. But we feel it's important enough that we get the design, so if some funding becomes available from whatever source, we can move forward."

Zeidel remains skeptical of what he describes as the administration's penchant for spin dating back to the initial campaign. "My first inclination is that they're going to come back to the old way" of financing the project, Zeidel says, though he hopes he's wrong about the university's ability to identify alternative funding sources. "That would be great. I think that's a very smart idea. That's exactly what the students were asking for when they voted down the student fee the first time. But I'll believe it when I see it."

In the best-case scenario, the Binghamton campus community won't see a finished product until August 2010. Current plans will double existing fitness space, add a third basketball/volleyball court and incorporate the school's first indoor running track and leisure pool. "We had more involvement from student leaders in the planning, and they all seemed enthused about it because we offered different pieces and different price tags," says Mark Bodien, a principal with Columbus, Ohio-based Moody•Nolan Inc., the project's design architect. Still, Bodien estimates that the two years that have elapsed since the failed referendum have cost the university "at least" an additional 15 to 20 percent due to construction cost inflation.

When asked if there's a chance that the project won't make it to the finish line, Van Voorst says, "Let's put it this way: I feel more confident that it will happen than it won't happen. Recreation is a very important part of student life. About half of our 14,000 students stay on campus, and they want to be on campus. And one of the reasons for that is they get the things that they're looking for here."

Compared to the hurdles the Binghamton project has faced so far, the West Virginia case study may read like an unobstructed sprint to the finish. In fact, Taylor had long lobbied for adequate facilities, but it took an incoming president appreciative of recreation's institutional value before a proposal gained sufficient traction.

"Our inner group had been talking about a student rec center for 25 years," Taylor says. "Then we had a new president come on board about 12 years ago, and his comment was, 'Why don't we have a student recreation center?' He came in with a student-life agenda. You could see it from day one."

WVU's David Hardesty is one of a growing number of college and university presidents who, when faced with a proposal, don't require a merits-of-recreation cram session. "Ten years ago there was a real intense education process, particularly with senior administrators, about what a recreation center is and the strategic value of building one," Brailsford says. "I think most university administrators involved in the process today are much more sophisticated in terms of what they understand and what they want to get out of it. And I think that's resulting in better, more sophisticated projects."

"I see more schools doing more detailed early planning than I used to," adds facility planning and design specialist Alan Resnick, a principal at Gould Evans Affiliates PA in Boston. "We used to see a lot of recreation master planning, but oftentimes it was independent of a particular project. People would say, 'Well, what do we think we need on campus?' And they would choose the highest-priority items and then go seek funding and support for them. What I'm seeing more now is, 'Okay, we want to build a rec center and we think we know what we need, but to validate that we need to bring a firm on board.' And the master plan has almost become more of a predesign."

One university president recently showed Brailsford trend data that appears to link that school's enrollment figures to the quality-of-life enhancements of its competitors. "There was no data showing causation, but there was a very strong correlation," Brailsford says. "Their yield went down as the other universities improved."

At a school like Michigan, which last year accepted 6,500 students from an applicant pool of 27,000, recruitment may not be a pressing concern, but quality of student life still is. And Canning, who has spent 35 years in campus administration and is in the seventh year of his third stint in Ann Arbor, would ideally like to see the university address his department's estimated $60 million in recreation facility needs - namely, housing new gymnasiums, running tracks, group fitness studios and weight rooms within additional brick and mortar. But he realizes his is not the only department demanding financial attention. "We're in a tough economic time in our state," he says. "Our tuition has been increasing quite a bit over the past few years, and if we're going to increase tuition and fees, what are the priorities for those percentage increases?"

Canning's strategy is one of coalition building among diverse departments, and presenting to administrators the idea that student recreation facilities can benefit a number of campus constituencies. "Going at it as a single entity won't advance a recreation center up the queue here," he says. "Finding a partner in human resources - and opening fitness and wellness centers to faculty and staff - will. I'm starting a program whereby a person who retires gets one month of free membership in our recreation center for every year of service. If they've been here for 20 years, they've got almost two years of use to go along with their gold watch."

Canning also champions the notion of recreation centers serving as go-to resources for trade shows, late-night movie screenings and even healthy 2 a.m. breakfasts - all to bolster the department's perceived worth. "Many campuses are groups of little silos, and I think an important role that recreation directors can play on campuses is to break down those walls by making themselves and their staff available to various committees," he says.

There have been modest infrastructure improvements. A $4.7 million renovation within the past three years turned an obsolete student locker room within the U of M's Intramural Sports Building into a 125-piece cardio area. Three former racquetball courts now house a climbing wall. Seven squash courts were sacrificed to create a weight room. But these are mere stopgap measures for a campus that boasts (if that's the right word) the nation's first dedicated intramural sports facility, built in 1927. To say Michigan is overdue for a new facility would be an understatement eighty years in the making.

Then again, no campus recreation center project can ever come too soon. Moody•Nolan, which designed the Student Recreation Center at West Virginia, estimates that it would cost $48 million to build that same facility today - an increase of 33 percent over the original outlay. Clearly, the center's value is not lost on WSU's Taylor, who points to annual usage increases since its opening. "Every prospective student - whether alone or among hundreds - gets a tour of this recreation center," he says. "We're usually the very first thing they see, and that's pretty cool."

Taylor's satisfaction is not at all atypical of those fortunate to have the entire process behind them. Buyer's remorse? Brailsford has never heard the phrase uttered among campus recreation directors. "The most common response is, 'Wow! If we knew it was going to have this much impact, we would have done it sooner,' " he says. "As much as there is a great deal of excitement associated with a coming project, most of the time the impact on campus culture is more dramatic than anticipated."

Just Ask Raising student fees to fund recreation centers can be an exercise in campus politicking. According to Paul Brailsford, CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based facility planning firm Brailsford & Dunlavey, a student referendum is the most talked-about method of implementing new fees, but it's not the only option. In fact, referendums are used in only about half of all campus recreation projects. "There are all kinds of ways to put a student fee in place," says Brailsford. "Oftentimes we take survey data and go directly to the board of regents. Sometimes it's put in place administratively. It depends on the culture of the university and how it historically changes fees. A lot of universities don't like to use referendums because doing so sets a precedent that the students have some sort of say over the university's pricing decisions."

If referendums make you nervous, perhaps a survey is all you need. Here is a small sampling of what Brailsford has learned from years of administering student surveys, followed by his comments:

  • A minimum 400 responses, regardless of enrollment size, is sufficient to gauge student sentiment. "If you're just trying to get an overview that the student body generally supports the notion of a recreation center, 400 pretty much gets you what you want to know - in a macro sense."
  • The greater the sample, the easier it is to "slice and dice" the data. "If we want to be able to learn something about the specific interests of swimmers, for example, we'll go for much higher yields, because within that 400 perhaps only 50 have identified themselves as swimmers."
  • The complexity of today's projects may require more than one survey. "You may have initially guessed that you can do a major addition to the rec complex for a $70 fee. Then you get into it and realize, 'Oops, I really need $90 per student.' When we're uncertain about what the project configuration might be, we sometimes just do a survey that helps the builder understand enough to develop a patron-flow analysis from which we can size the building. We then go back to the students with the second survey that focuses just on fee sensitivity."
  • Focus groups benefit just about any project. "We don't use focus groups to learn anything that we would later quantify. We use focus groups to help us understand issues and write a smarter survey."
  • The act of completing a survey shouldn't overwhelm students. "We would like a student to be able to finish in 10 to 12 minutes. Beyond that, it becomes fairly cumbersome."
  • The Internet is the preferred mode of survey delivery. "It's the least expensive and allows you to do the most sophisticated things" with the data.

Paul Steinbach is Senior Editor of Athletic Business.