Arkansas Tech University puts off decision on downsizing student-center project

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)

RUSSELLVILLE -- The Arkansas Tech University Board of Trustees discussed reducing the scale of a planned student union and recreation center on campus to save money, but tabled the issue Thursday in order to allow more student feedback into the building's design.

"I'm in favor of a reduction, but I want students involved," said Trustee Stephanie Duffield of Russellville. "It's very important to get this right."

Discussions between the university's administrators, students and architects will take place over the next couple of weeks, said Russ Jones, ATU's interim president. "We want to find the right size for students and our budget."

After those talks, trustees will hold a special meeting to approve any design changes; it remains possible, however, that the original plan might ultimately be selected, said the chairman, Jim Smith of Fayetteville. No special meeting was scheduled Thursday, but he anticipates one next month, most likely before Thanksgiving and certainly before the next scheduled trustees meeting Dec. 14.

"We've got significant needs on campus, [so] if we can have a good project that also gives us savings," it must be seriously considered, Smith said. "The full experience" -- including academic spaces, residence halls, etc. -- is important for students, not only potential students, but those currently on campus. "We need to take care of them."

There were 7,393 students enrolled through ATU on the Russellville campus on the 11th day of fall semester classes, plus another 2,004 students on the Ozark campus.

Students who have voiced concerns -- most notably officers of the Student Government Association -- regarding changes to the student union/recreation center care not only about themselves and their peers, but ATU's students of the future, Jones said. "They had a lot of questions" when he met with them, and "they really care."

Student Government Association secretary of public relations Autumn Stoll, of Benton, who also gives campus tours, worries about "false advertising" if the student union/recreation center is dramatically scaled back, because tour guides highlight the project with potential students, and several students who have enrolled -- or plan to -- at ATU have cited the building as an attraction to campus. Downsizing would also negatively impact "morale" of the current student body, the senior said.

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. The student union/recreation center is set to include space for a campus living room/lounge, individual and group fitness activities, two basketball courts, outdoor recreation, a cafe, events at multiple scales, student organizations, food service, a convenience store/spirit shop, a multiactivity court and multipurpose meeting rooms.

ATU has contributed $20 million toward the student center, while bonds have been issued for remaining costs, but with a smaller, less-expensive building -- roughly $35 million -- ATU could reinvest funds into improvements of academic spaces, said Laury Fiorello, vice president of administration and finance. ATU has about a third fewer students than when the building was first designed several years ago, as enrollment has been in decline.

"I worry [about not] investing in other academic spaces," she said. "If we could free up $6 million-$8 million," those funds would service other capital needs, which would attenuate student fee increases in the future."

On Thursday, the ATU Administration & Finance Construction team, Fayetteville-based MBL Architecture, and Kinco Constructors presented trustees with a pair of options that reduce the building's square footage.

Under the first plan, the building would remain two stories, but reduced to 55,682 square feet. Among the changes, meeting rooms and one basketball court would be removed from the first floor, with a smaller weight room, while the veranda and meet space and track would be removed from the second floor; in addition, a third of the square footage of the second-floor weight room and gym would be removed, along with reducing the fitness-cardio area.

The second proposal would keep the building at only one story, with 55,144 square feet. On the first/only floor, one meeting room would be removed, as would a staircase, the weight room would be smaller, and offices originally designed for the second floor would move to the first/only floor.

Duffield said she certainly did not like the one-story plan, to which Jones added, "nobody did."

That includes the Student Government Association, as the body is willing to give its imprimatur to a two-story plan that includes reductions, as long as students are able to provide input on what is removed from the project, said senior Hannah Stone, Student Government Association president, who's from Clarksville. Students want to ensure the building is a true centerpiece and gathering spot on campus, she said.

A two-story design "is easier for us to make beautiful and have the presence on campus we want it to have," said Audy Lack, principal architect at MBL Architecture.

Students also care about "transparency," Stone said. Students want to know which other campus projects savings on the student union/recreation center would be devoted to should it be downsized.

The student union/recreation center is currently scheduled for completion in the summer of 2025; however, delays and changes could move that back, said Lack and Clay Gordon, president of Kinco Constructors. However, both men said they remained committed to completing the project on its current timeline if possible.

Fiorello and her team have also developed a comprehensive Capital Improvement Program documenting the university's five-year needs, and she presented the plan to the board Thursday for input.

The goal of the plan is to guide ATU through capital needs and requests, according to Fiorello. "It will help me plan going forward."

"I believe we'll be one of the first universities in the state to have an actual plan" for deferred and critical maintenance, she explained this summer. "Without a plan, we'll never even start to make a dent in" all these needs.

For fiscal year 2024, the plan lists nearly two-dozen projects costing roughly $16 million, and "based on current and projected enrollment, I can't do any more than $16 million in bonds," she said Thursday. The Administration & Finance team recommends funding these projects through either a private placement bond issuance, traditional bond issuance, or traditional bank loan.

Of the $55.6 million in projects identified for fiscal year 2025 through fiscal year 2028, ATU has 14 of 176 projects already funded at a total of $11.4 million, she said. These are "active and in progress" at this time.

Projects adumbrated in the Capital Improvement Program are "not fun projects, but necessary for the life of buildings," Duffield said.

A "comprehensive list of priorities is very helpful," added trustee Michael Lamoureux of Russellville.

Another portion of the plan includes eliminated projects. Earlier this month, trustees voted to demolish the Administration Building and Tomlinson Hall, with faculty and staff relocated to other unoccupied spaces on campus.

Renovating these buildings would cost nearly $7 million over the next several years, and -- more immediately -- roughly $3.2 million would be required to make them "a safe environment," according to Fiorello.

By demolishing them, the university can reallocate funds that would have been spent on those renovations and upgrade other areas, such as Corley Hall, Rothwell Hall, McEver Hall, Dean Hall, and Witherspoon Hall, along with interior renovations at University Commons Apartments and replacement of the cooling tower for the Doc Bryan Student Services Center.

Kinco Constructors of Little Rock estimates the cost of demolition at $387,000 if combined with the union/recreation center project, according to Fiorello. If separate from that project, the razing would cost $534,000.

"We can [realize demolition] savings because Kinco is already on campus" for the student union/recreation center project, Fiorello said. To engage another company for the demolition would likely cost between $500,000 and $700,000.

Fiorello said she hopes to avoid having to raze any other buildings in the future by addressing capital needs earlier through the Capital Improvement Program, adding that "my goal is to retain as much of this campus as we can."

Trustees voted to accept the Capital Improvement Program on Thursday and allow ATU's administration "to enter into financing activities that will require either the inclusion of bond attorney, financial advisors, and bidding activities associated with either bond issuance or traditional loan."

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