ATU trustees vote to reduce rec center plans

Redesign estimated to save $3.7 million in construction

FILE — A student walks past a mural on the Arkansas Tech University campus in Russellville in this Oct. 5, 2022 file photo.
(File Photo/Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)
FILE — A student walks past a mural on the Arkansas Tech University campus in Russellville in this Oct. 5, 2022 file photo. (File Photo/Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)


The Arkansas Tech University board of trustees voted unanimously Monday to reduce in size by roughly a third a planned student union and recreation center.

The ATU board of trustees voted in August 2022 to approve the schematic design, method of finance, and construction project budget for the proposed 94,802-square-foot student union/recreation center that would cost nearly $50 million, but the proposal adopted Monday would make the building roughly 68,000 square feet. Trustees also considered a proposal that would have reduced the building to roughly 50,000 square feet, as well as not making any changes to the original proposal, but ultimately declined those options.

Laury Fiorello, vice president of administration and finance, estimated that the new plan will save roughly $3.7 million, while the more dramatic downsizing would've saved nearly $10 million. Reducing the size of the building also saves on long-term operating and maintenance costs.

Trustees initially considered plans to scale back the student union and recreation center during a meeting in October but decided then to table the issue pending more information, particularly gathering additional input from students, who raised concerns about downsizing the project. A survey and a town hall meeting since then have provided avenues for students to give feedback.

Student voices are important, because not only is the building a student center, but ''students pay for everything" either directly or indirectly through tuition, fees, and other costs, said Russ Jones, ATU's interim president. "Our money is your money," as 70% of funds at ATU are from student tuition.

The Student Government Association presented the three options the board considered Monday in a poll to students, 446 of whom responded. The poll showed 79% of those respondents preferred to keep the original plan for the building, said senior Hannah Stone, the SGA president, who's from Clarksville. Though the support for that plan was clearly "overwhelming," no survey is "perfect."

A sampling of fewer than 500 students isn't representative of the entire student body, for example, Stone said. Furthermore, the students who responded are more "passionate and engaged" than the average student.

(Arkansas Tech's 11th-day enrollment on the Russellville campus was 7,393 students this fall.)

Stone declined to express a personal opinion on which option she'd prefer, noting she only wanted to present trustees with information and data, adding, "We trust our administration to make the best decision for students."

Jones recommended the proposal trustees approved Monday as a compromise because it includes many of the amenities that would've been lost in the October proposals -- to the consternation of students -- but also saves money from the original plan, he said. "I try to balance student satisfaction with fiscal responsibility."

This proposal includes meeting spaces students prioritized, as well as space for esports and offices supporting outdoor recreation activities, Jones said. "It's a fair compromise, [and] there's a lot you can do with $3-$4 million" in savings to meet other needs on campus, such as deferred maintenance.

Though the building will be roughly a third smaller than originally planned, ATU's enrollment is down by roughly a third from when the original plan was approved, noted Trustee Stephanie Duffield of Russellville. "I want to make smart cuts if we're going to make cuts, [and this] seems like a fair compromise."

She also encourages students not to view this change as a "downgrade," she said. Students are "still getting a really amazing space."

It's "a compromise for everybody, and I'm all about compromise, [even though] it doesn't make everybody happy," said the board's chairman, Jim Smith. "We'd love to have everything," but this "is a good resolution."

Under the new plan one of three planned basketball courts will be excised, along with an indoor walking track and a veranda, according to Sam Strasner, ATU's director of media relations.

Bill Clary, the board's secretary, said students have "every right to be disappointed with any reduction," and "I'd love to have the full-size building, if we had the money."

However, "we can't afford it," said Clary, who spoke in favor of the proposal to cut $10 million in costs and roughly 45,000 square feet. "Ideally, we'd not build one at all, but we're committed."

ATU has contributed $20 million toward the student center, while bonds have been issued for remaining costs. The student union/recreation center is currently scheduled for completion in the summer of 2025.