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Richmond Times Dispatch (Virginia)

Virginia Commonwealth University announced plans to build a $25 million basketball practice facility that Rams men's coach Shaka Smart hopes will "continue to move this program to new heights."

VCU athletics director Ed McLaughlin said the two-story, 60,000-square-foot facility will be paid for with $14.5 million in private donations and $10.5 million from reallocating part of student fees that are being used to pay off part of the debt on the Siegel Center.

Those fees will be redirected once the Siegel Center debt is retired in 2016, McLaughlin said. He said student fees will not be increased and no state funds will be used.

The facility will be located across from the Siegel Center in the 1300 block of Marshall Street. The look of the building won't be available until after the design/build team is selected at the end of March.

It will house two practice courts -- one each for men's and women's basketball -- as well as locker rooms, coaches' offices, strength and conditioning areas, a sports medicine center with a hydrotherapy room, a viewing deck, lounges and a dining room for players, a laundry and equipment room, and a video suite.

Construction is expected to begin in the spring, McLaughlin said, and be completed in about 15 months.

How student fees might have fueled the rising costs of a bachelor's degree at the state's public institutions is the focus of an ongoing General Assembly-mandated study.

"Believe me, the board of visitors asked that question over and over again," VCU Rector William Ginther said.

VCU's student fee this academic year is $1,757.46. About 40 percent, or $697.31, goes to intercollegiate athletics, VCU spokesman Michael Porter said.

The fee revenue allocated to the Siegel Center debt service is about $1.244 million annually, which represents 6.8 percent of the university fee revenue the athletics department receives, Porter said.

Both the men's and women's basketball programs "have done a lot for VCU's national image and ability to attract students," he said. "So we ultimately decided it was the right thing to do."

The Rams, who went to the 2011 Final Four and are about to go to their fourth consecutive NCAA tournament under Smart, are 24-7 and ranked 23rd in this week's Associated Press poll.

"We continue to aspire to be the very best in everything that we do, and that includes the athletics landscape," VCU president Michael Rao said at a news conference Monday. "We decided a number of years ago to take it to the next level. As I stare at Shaka and remember all those times that we spent talking about what it would take to get to the next level, he's certainly helped us in so many ways achieve just that."

McLaughlin said when he was named athletics director in July 2012, there was an understanding the facility was "very, very important to (Smart), and it was probably more important than anything else."

Smart said the "effect on the program is very, very significant and something in a lot of ways that has just sort of changed the way we're looked at," and it will allow student-athletes to have "the best experience that anyone could have in the country."

"What we've tried to do over the last five years is build on success that had occurred for many years," he said. "As I've said before, we're not done yet. We want to continue making progress. We want to continue attracting higher level student-athletes who can help move this program to new heights."

Smart thanked donors to the facility and other VCU projects and noted that while he's worked at five universities, he's never been at a place with such a "shared vision for success on and off the court."

"That's one of the things I value most about VCU," he said. "One of the things people ask me is, 'What is it about VCU?' I just love the connection that our student-athletes, our coaches, our administrators have with everyone that's involved with VCU."

The project originally was approved in the 2011 capital plan as a privately funded, $14.5 million single gym located in the Siegel Center parking lot near the Bowe Street parking deck.

McLaughlin said the scope of the facility grew after spending "a lot of time last year making sure we had everything we needed."

"It wasn't a thing for us to say, 'What can we build this for?'" he said. "It was, 'What's it going to take to build a facility that's going to last for the next 25 years and making sure that we were doing things from a Title IX perspective and we put both of our programs in a position to be successful?'"

The men's team practices in the Franklin Street Gym, which opened in 1951 and was expanded in 1970. The gym area underwent a $250,000 renovation in 2006.

The women's team plays its games and practices mostly in the Siegel Center, but it occasionally practices in Franklin Street. VCU's plan calls for replacing Franklin Street Gym with new buildings for the humanities and sciences.

"So much of recruiting is based on perception and bricks and mortar and what one institution may or may not have over another," women's coach Marlene Stollings said. "This facility will put us on an even playing field."

VCU has had an agreement with the Carver Area Civic Improvement League that the university would not expand north of Marshall Street. Margaret Rush, president of the civic association, said members voted 17-1 to allow it.

In a report last fall by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, VCU's mandatory athletic-related fees were found to be the third-lowest among the four-year schools. For the 2012-13 academic year, VCU's fee was $635, compared with a statewide average of $1,185.

But the report also found that VCU student fees account for 73 percent of the total athletic revenue, or $16.7 million.

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March 12, 2014


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