The campus recreation building boom has made pitching such projects easier, but some persuasion may still be necessary before all doors are opened.
Richard Pfau calls it the "gulp" moment.
It took place during a weekend this past May in Pfau's oncampus home at Illinois College, where he serves as president. The bulk of the school's 28-member board of trustees, as well as several emeritus board members, were gathered in golf shirts and khakis for an annual retreat. The topic of discussion this day was the state of the college's recreation facilities.
It was not foreign subject matter. Back in 1994, consulting architects had identified three building needs that were then incorporated into the campus master plan: a residence hall, which was built the following year; a science building, which is currently under construction; and a recreation facility, whose time had come. Illinois College's existing gymnasium, built in the early '50s with 25,000 square feet of space, no longer measured up to those of peer institutions. A campaign was launched with a goal of raising $30 million to address various campus needs, including $7 million earmarked for renovation of the gym. However, plans drawn up for the project were ultimately rejected. "To many of the trustees, it just seemed like throwing good money after bad," Pfau says.
As it became clear that the capital campaign would exceed its goal by as much as $10 million, administrators took a close look at building a recreation facility from the ground up. One design put the cost at $14 million. But by the time the decision was made in 1999 to move forward with the project, the price tag had been bumped to $16 million, with another $1 million set aside as a maintenance endowment.
Enter Erik Kocher, a principal at St. Louis-based Hastings & Chivetta Architects. Armed with a PowerPoint presentation, Kocher explained to the board his vision for the new facility-where he thought it should be located, what he thought it ought to contain and how much (gulp) he expected it to cost. "His initial design, which is very creative and fits beautifully into our campus, is even more ambitious," says Pfau. "So now we've gone from a $7 million project to a 14 to a 16 and now we're looking at $21 million."
"I have absolutely no statistics to back up the value," Kocher says. "But whenever we speak with people-the presidents of these colleges, the athletic directors, the recreation directors - they all know the value." Richard Cook, president of Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa., knows the value. After the Illinois College board reassembled after lunch, Cook, who had flown in that day from Pittsburgh, relayed to board members some of the positive aspects of such a project, including an increase in applicants, that his school had witnessed since opening a new recreation facility.
"Erik does his thing, Richard does his thing, and the next day at the plenary session, the board votes to go ahead with the next phase, which is design and development, because of their presentations," Pfau says. "I think the president was confident, but the reason he brought in this other president was to illustrate the value," Kocher says. "And it worked. His board approved the project."
As recently as 15 years ago, a scenario like the one at Illinois College might not have happened. Back then, spending $20 million (or even a more modest mid-1980s equivalent) on recreation space at a school with fewer than 1,000 students might easily have been dismissed as unnecessary, if not absurd. The recognition of recreation as a tool in student recruitment and retention didn't become widespread until the '90s, with sophisticated structures popping up on campuses small and large to meet student demand and keep pace with competing schools. "There were three or four first-class recreation facilities 10 years ago, but now they're all over the place," says Alan Resnick, a principal at "The selling job was not 'We need a facility.' The selling job was 'We need this big, expensive facility.' " Sasaki Associates in Watertown, Mass., who also teaches a summer course in facility planning and design at Harvard University.
The boom has made it much easier to pitch such projects to a school's administration and its students, whose fees often provide a good share of the funding. "If you go back 12 years, when the pioneers hadn't started yet, it was really a tough go," Resnick says. "There were a few visionaries who pushed the program, but more recently, as soon as one of these facilities crops up in a given conference or a given peer group of institutions, all the rest of them see that and say, 'We need one, too.' " "Campus rec directors are aware of what's out there," says Paul Brailsford, of Brailsford & Dunlavey, a Washington, D.C.-based facility planning and project management firm. "They are usually aware of what the state of the art is and where they stand by comparison. It will be the campus rec director who will lobby the vice president for student affairs, who will then bring the rest of the cabinet up to speed with the fact that it's an issue."
But that chain of awareness appears to be changing with the times, too. "Frequently, we'll see a new president come in who will have developed a facility at his or her previous campus and who will be looking around for an opportunity to make a mark, and the agenda may come that way," Brailsford says. "Or, a new cabinet member may come in, look around and say, 'Gosh, this campus doesn't have what the campus I just came from has.' " "I've worked for some large schools and some small schools, and the larger the institution, the higher up this kind of issue gets an audience," says Resnick.
"The presidents of big universities with 30,000 students are keenly interested in improving the applicant pool, the general quality of student life and the marketing position of the institution. In places like that, I think it goes both ways. The rec director will say, 'Hey, I really need a better facility,' but he's not caring about recruitment and retention so much; he or she is really thinking, 'I just have a job to do, and I want to do the best I can.' At the same time, you've got the next level up, the VP for student affairs, and that person has the ear of the president. And then the president starts thinking, 'I have my goals for this institution. This fits a strategy to achieve those goals. Let's do it.' I really haven't seen a whole lot of resistance."
That's not to say every lobbying effort is a breeze these days. Norm Parsons, recreation director at the University of Miami, witnessed the 1975 construction of the school's first-ever indoor recreation facility, a windowless, bunker-like structure built for efficiency in the midst of the nationwide energy crisis. Within 10 years, he realized the 25,000-square-foot building-the first and, due to a lack of donor interest, final phase of a proposed three-phase, 75,000- square-foot complex-was severely lacking. Parsons turned to Cannon Design to "draw some plans from nothing more than dreams that I'd had from traveling around and looking. We just threw together some quasi-blueprint floor plans for people to just sort of get an idea of what something like this could be."
Parsons says he lost count of how many presentations he made to students on campus-during residence-hall floor meetings, fraternity functions and classes taught by friends on the faculty-in anticipation of a student referendum on the issue. "We would roll out these plans, and the people would look at them and get excited, and eventually the word spread enough, and people sort of got tired of listening to me talk and said, 'OK, let's move forward with this thing.'"
The pitch was heavy on wellness, which Parsons articulated during visits to several campus locales, including the cafeteria, the health center, the counseling center, the chaplains association and the student affairs office. "By the time the referendum rolled around, not only were the students talking about it, but also a lot of the university community bought into the concept that the building is more than just a gym, more than a place to go and shoot hoops," he says. The carefully worded referendum included a stipulation that all money collected through student fees would stay with the building project, assuaging fears that it might be redirected toward other campus priorities. It also pointed out that faculty and staff would pay facility membership fees greater than those paid by students. The referendum passed, with 77 percent of voters in favor of the new facility.
The greater challenge, according to Parsons, was getting the university's president to thoroughly understand the need for the facility. Comparative data was gathered from in-state rivals Florida and Florida State, as well as from private universities such as Duke, Emory, Tulane and Vanderbilt. "We did charts and graphs showing how many square feet they had and how many students, and the bottom line was we were so far behind it wasn't even funny," Parsons says. Funding concerns were answered, in part, by the student referendum, which opened the project to monies not found through private donors. In addition, a financial plan projected revenue from guest passes, pro-shop sales, locker and towel rentals, and the rental of space to internal and external groups.
Open since January 1996, the 120,000- square-foot facility has welcomed open houses hosted by the admissions office, career fairs conducted by the career planning and placement office, commencement exercises for the School of Education, and an annual eight-week summer camp for children-not to mention a wealth of recreational sports and wellness programming. "The way the place has been used has been really fun to watch," Parsons says. "The university community has embraced it."
As illustrated at Illinois College, getting a handle on a facility's size has emerged as a more important issue for administrators than necessity. Brailsford points to one institution whose administrators thought $20 million would adequately cover their campus's recreation needs, when $55 million was a more accurate figure. "They obviously had to travel way down the road to embrace a project of that magnitude," he says. "We didn't start by telling them $55 million. We always start with, 'Well, what's important? What are your targeted outcomes for investing in recreation?' "
Says Resnick, "Master planning is the phase where you say, 'So, you think you want a rec center? Well, how do you know that? How do you define what your needs are, and how do you translate that into the size of your building? Where should it go? What should be in it?'"
Administrators may have general ideas of what they want a recreation facility to accomplish, including redefining the institution in its marketplace, creating or enhancing a sense of campus by providing students with social alternatives and improving the physiological well-being of students, faculty and staff. However, administrators may not have a solid grasp of what it takes in the way of structure and programming to meet these objectives. Market analysis in the form of focus groups and detailed surveys can provide programmers not only with the data they need to quantify campus sentiment for or against a facility, but it can also pinpoint how the facility will be used and by how many people. "We've got very sophisticated capacity models and what we call demand-based programming that allows us to show the decision-makers how the proposed facility can actually respond to the market in the particular way that they want to respond to it," Brailsford says.
Administrators may treat market data as a mandate to build a new facility, bypassing the need for a student referendum, but the proposed scale of a project sometimes requires negotiation between programmers and administrators. Invariably, the length of the wish list is limited by the size of the war chest. "I've never been involved with a project from which something didn't get cut out," Brailsford says. "There's always something more that a school would have built if somehow it could have gotten another million or two."
Resnick remembers a situation in which information gathered from student surveys and interviews was used to downscale a project the university was otherwise willing to finance. School officials initially envisioned a facility with more than a dozen indoor basketball courts, reflecting the institution's rich basketball tradition. "We found they could handle one- or two-thirds of their basketball needs outdoors and save an awful lot of money, because their climate was good and the students liked playing outdoors," says Resnick, who estimated the school's savings at around $6 million. "If you have a good solid survey and student- input process, you can really quantify exactly what's needed."
Conversely, an administration's narrow vision for a proposed project can be broadened with a little persuasion in the form of accurate market information and revenue projections. "Just like any commercial venture, if the market's there and the revenue's there, you can afford to build it," Resnick says. "We always temper that with experience and judgment, and to some extent you can build in some flexibility. You have to be careful not to overbuild so that years from now you're not sitting there with facilities that don't make sense."
For the most part, colleges and universities nationwide are finding that it makes sense to at least reexamine their recreation facilities. Illinois College, for one, is in the middle of the process, but not yet out of the woods. The school's vice president for development has taken a team of trustees and coaches to scout facilities on other campuses, the entire student body of 900 has been surveyed, and the architectural plans are on the table. The board now awaits tighter cost estimates and figures relating to cost of operation, which it expects to review in February. At that time, with the new information, the board will again vote on the fate of the proposed facility. "All we're committed to up to now is the design phase and, obviously, we could shut down at that point, although I don't expect to," says Pfau, who hopes to unveil the building in time for the 2002-03 academic year. "My hope is we'll go right on."