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The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tennessee)
For years as a student recruiter at the University of Memphis, Ricky Kirby helped sell his school to potential undergraduates with the promise of a new, state-of-the art recreation center.
The Student Government Association president from 2013-15 he helped turn a dream for such a facility into a firm plan and was finally able to promote the benefit to incoming students.
Then President David Rudd announced Sunday he was delaying plans for the new rec center by 18 months and sending it back for redesign to include the existing facility, first built in 1971.
"Now I look like a liar," Kirby, a 2016 graduate, said.
Rudd's announcement, made to the university community in a weekend email blast, promised the project will still happen, but financial issues and a number of coinciding capital improvements necessitated the new rec center delay.
But a line in the letter about renovating the current rec center and not tearing it down for at least 10 years made students nervous.
"The thought on campus is that it will not be happening," junior finance and accounting major Drew Gilmore said.
Kirby, who received a personal phone call from Rudd over the weekend before the public announcement, said his impression is also of a glorified renovation and not a completely new building. The plans for the new building depended on tearing down the old one, he said.
Rudd said in his letter the plans were returning for a redesign to incorporate the old building after costs ballooned over $60 million, and he discovered the university still owes almost $7 million on a renovation done to the exiting building in 2000. The debt expires on that project in 2030.
Student investment on the proposed project is literally and figuratively high - they care about having the new center as a place to spend their time, but they're also paying for it. The students in 2014 voted for a fee of almost $300 a year to cover the cost of new rec center and a pedestrian bridge over the railroad tracks that run through the campus.
The bridge is still on track, Rudd said, but the fees did not generate as much revenue as expected.
If all goes according to the new timeline for the rec center, which would break ground mid-2018, only this year's freshmen class has any chance of using the new facility while they are undergraduates.
Rudd said by phone Monday he understands students' disappointment, but after the school started assessing the fee, enrollment dropped lower than expected. Numbers increased this year, he said, but the fee revenue still took a hit the previous two years.
"I absolutely understand and appreciate the disappointment, absolutely," Rudd said. "But that disappointment is likely to be more profound if we had to do substantial tuition increases over the next years in order to pay" for the new rec center.
Rudd said the minor renovations done to the existing rec center include maintenance and air conditioning work, nothing like improvements done in 2000. None of the student fee revenues will pay for those upgrades, he said.
Although he's going to leave the existing building standing - "I'm not going to tear a building down that has $7 million of debt service on it" - Rudd said that doesn't mean it will stay a rec center after the new one opens.
"We don't tear down things just because we build something new," Rudd said. "We utilize those. "This is a broader issue of financial responsibility."
Even if the costs hadn't climbed so high, Rudd said, the litany of other projects currently underway or recently completed meant adding on the new rec center right now would push the university's total amount of debt too high.
"All of those push the total debt service to a level that I'm not comfortable with," he said.
Charles Uffelman, who graduated in December but helped convince students to approve the increased fee in 2014, said it was a hard sell at the time to students who didn't believe it would really happen.
"'I'm telling you, this time, they're actually going to do it,'" Uffelman told them. "We had a lot of students that didn't actually believe it was going to happen, but they wanted it. It looks like they may be right now."
Senior Savannah Worcester said she's always known she wouldn't get to use the new facility during her tenure at the university, but she's disappointed for the younger students whose expectations won't be met.
"Our Tigers deserve more than that," she said.
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