WSSU and Bowman Gray Stadium: A Bad Deal

Last November, Chancellor Donald Reaves of Winston-Salem State University (WSSU) joined Nathan Hatch, the President of Wake Forest University, and Susan Pauly, president of Salem Academy and College, at a forum in Winston-Salem to talk about something Reaves has frequently talked about the last few years: the rising cost of higher education.

Reaves said, “Affordability will affect the future of higher education. We have priced many people out of the market of higher education.”

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Affordability is a sentiment echoed in the North Carolina Constitution, which states “that  the benefits of  the University of North Carolina and other public institutions of higher education, as far as practicable, be extended to the people of the state free of expense.”[1]

Fast forward to earlier this year when the Senate Finance Committee was considering SB 480.  The actions make me think state government and some of our universities aren’t really concerned with protecting taxpayer dollars or trying to keep college costs affordable.

SB 480 is the UNC Capital Appropriations bill. It is an approved list of campus-based capital projects that are paid out of university or gift funds or are self-financed. Projects on the list cannot be financed by general appropriations or tuition money.

One of the projects originally on the SB 480 list was $7.5 million for Winston Salem State University to  purchase Bowman Gray Stadium and Civitan  Park. The original appropriations bill included a provision to allow WSSU to purchase Bowman Gray Stadium for $7.5 million. As the bill takes final shape, the provision for the stadium purchase has been included but then excluded from the legislation. As of this writing, the bill includes no money for WSSU to purchase Bowman Gray Stadium. A final vote on the legislation will be taken this afternoon by the House.

It is no secret that the city of Winston-Salem has been trying to sell Bowman-Gray Stadium and Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum for several years. The facilities generate an operating deficit for the city of about $400,000 per year. Officials say the deal would eliminate the deficit and improve the city’s borrowing capacity by $10 million and allow it to address higher priority needs.

However, the status of the provision remains uncertain. In previous years opposition from the local legislative delegation  was strong enough to ensure the provision never moved forward. This year the provision was stripped from a House Finance Committee bill. The Senate has already passed a version that included money for Bowman Gray Stadium and then lifted it . In a recent article in the Winston-Salem Journal, Sen. Pete Brunstetter, co-chairman of the Appropriations Committee and member of the Senate Finance Committee, said he supports legislation that would allow WSSU to purchase the stadium.

As you might expect, most of the impetus for the deal is from WSSU. The university has wanted to upgrade its athletics program and getting its own stadium would significantly help that cause. The university could not buy or build a stadium for anywhere near $7 million. The deal would also allow the university to stop paying rental fees.

The contracts (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) between WSSU and the city require WSSU to pay a base rental fee of $3,500 per event (game).  Based on provisions in the contract(increases are tied to the change in the Consumer Price Index and no increase will be less than 3 percent), the estimated 2012 lease would be approximately $3,800 per game. In addition, provisions stipulate that the city of Winston-Salem retain all revenue from parking, food and beverage sales and also be responsible for all staffing costs.

From the WSSU perspective, the stadium deal is attractive. Still there are plenty of reasons why this deal should be nixed.

It may be legal, but there is something morally wrong about allowing a city to unload debt onto state taxpayers  without any input from the public.

WSSU said it would finance the $500,000 annual debt payment by raising student fees by approximately $110 per student.

Yes, that was right. Chancellor Donald Reaves, the man who frequently laments the high cost of higher education, has no problem raising student fees by another $110 so the football team can purchase a stadium it doesn’t need.

Provisions included in the bill require WSSU to protect racing at the stadium. The University is prohibited from renaming the stadium or charging parking during race events. Provisions require race events to continue in the same fashion as they did when Bowman Gray was administered by the city.

Is this good? Transferring a large facility to another entity and then limiting what it can or can’t do with it is a bad precedent.

Despite the assurances, race fans still fear for the future of racing in Winston Salem. Weekly racing has been an event at the track for decades. However, future administrators or the university’s long-term athletic interests may not coincide with the long-term interests of the track.

If university administrators are not concerned about holding the line on college costs, the legislature should be. It should vote later today to defeat the Bowman Gray Stadium provision in SB 480. Students, taxpayers and racing fans will thank lawmakers for doing so.



[1] The Constitution of the State of North Carolina, Article IX Education, Section 9.

This article was posted in Education by Bob Luebke on July 22, 2013 at 4:04 PM.

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