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Running on empty

Rundown Student Recreation Complex looks for solutions

 by Lynh Bui
 published on Friday, April 30, 2004

 Students and faculty in the weight room workout at the SRC Thursday. Officials say equipment there needs replacement./issues/specialreports/676085
Students and faculty in the weight room workout at the SRC Thursday. Officials say equipment there needs replacement.
 

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Howard Taylor looks at the Student Recreation Center and sees problems.

ASU's only facility where students can exercise, play and compete for fun is 15 years old and showing its age.

The roof, carpeting and field lights need to be replaced, and the wood floors in the gym are worn.

Treadmills and other cardiovascular machines - the most popular exercise equipment - are 10 years old or older, even though most gyms replace such items every three to five years. Even if the SRC did have the money to replace them, the building does not have enough power to keep them all running.

Every year, more people crowd into the same place. In one day, an average of 5,221 students, faculty, staff and alumni pass through the SRC turnstiles.

During peak hours - 4 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday - lines form to get on a treadmill or play basketball.

And still, the building's debt payments continue rising. With 11 years left until the building is paid off, the bond payments, inflation and deferred maintenance fees have created a mounting debt, which is "escalating to the tune of $30,000 a year," Taylor said.

The SRC's annual budget is about $4 million, and about half of that goes to pay off the debt. That's about the same amount of money the SRC collects each year from students, who each pay a mandatory $25 per semester to use the facility.

But none of these things are new to Taylor, who has been director of the center for nearly three and a half years. He has known for a long time that keeping the recreation complex going is a lot like stepping onto one of his treadmills: You keep going faster and faster, but you never really get anywhere.

But what's new is ASU President Michael Crow threatening to throw a switch that could stop the treadmills in their tracks. He has said he will revoke all University funding for Student Affairs departments such as the SRC, the Memorial Union, the Student Health and Wellness Center, KAET-TV and the Alumni Association, among others.

Taylor and his business manager, James Beadle, said they should expect the SRC's share of University money to disappear at any time. For the SRC, that means a loss of about $800,000 a year in University support, or one-fifth of its annual budget.

Mernoy Harrison, ASU's executive vice president of administration and finance, insists that the University money won't go away until the SRC has the means to replace it.

But the SRC and other departments within Student Affairs are "auxiliaries," as the University calls them, and should be self-supporting, Harrison said.

"We would like to have all auxiliaries function without tuition support so that those funds can be used to support academic needs," Harrison said. "I think the SRC should function solely from student fees and fees for service."

Beadle said there are also rumors that the University could eliminate funding for janitorial and maintenance work, as well as utility fees for electricity and water. Officials are not sure whether that will be the case, but if it were, the SRC would have to find a way to raise nearly an additional $700,000 per year.

He added that the University isn't offering sufficient support in janitorial and maintenance work as it is, and student workers or other staff are contracted to pick up the slack.

"There are many things that are left undone in the facility," Beadle said. "We have student staff who fill in if Facilities Management can't or won't be able to do [work] for us; we aren't willing to let that go undone because of the impact to the building."

Add it all up, and SRC officials fear a funding gap of more than $1.5 million a year.

Lost momentum

Shortly after Crow announced his plan last fall to wean auxiliary departments from tuition funds, the SRC and the MU, along with student government, went to work on a plan to hike student fees.

Students would pay $180 per semester by fall 2006 to support both facilities - enough to take care of current maintenance problems, buy new equipment and, most important, expand the buildings to handle an expected onslaught of students in years to come. The higher fees would have taken effect in stages, with the first increase of $25 per student per semester - $12.50 each for the SRC and MU - starting fall 2004.

"The fees for the referendum were designed so the SRC could be completely self-funded and we could maintain the building the way it needs to be maintained," Beadle said.

Administrators, in collaboration with student government, drew up plans to enlarge the building, adding an indoor track, two more gyms and a satellite facility on north campus. With a price tag of more than $50 million, the student government launched a campaign to sell the idea to students.

While the Arizona Board of Regents approves fee hikes, Taylor and others, such as Undergraduate Student Government President Brandon Goad, wanted student backing before taking the proposal to the board. A referendum on the issue was set for mid-February.

At first, Goad, Taylor and others were confident of student support. But poor timing and an allegedly biased campaign shattered that optimism days before voting began.

Student government and University officials put up about $6,000 to tell students about the fee proposal and urge them to vote.

An independent research firm hired to help with the expansion advised the "Got Vote" committee on how to execute its campaign based on similar campaigns at other universities.

While the campaign was supposed to be informational only, students soon were complaining that in reality it encouraged students to vote for the fees.

"The long lines at Starbucks and the treadmills aren't the only signs that the student population is growing at Arizona State University," stated one "Got Vote" pamphlet. A sign posted on campus proclaimed: "Going to the SRC for a 20 minute workout = 1 hour; Grabbing lunch during a 20 minute break = 45 min.; Finding a place to chill on campus = You can't. Improving YOUR campus community = priceless; know the facts."

"It is quite clear that this band of pinheads (the "Got Vote" committee) grossly misused student dollars to further its own inane agenda," said Alan Schoenrock, a biology freshman who wrote a letter to the editor of The State Press.

Both Goad and Brian Collier, president of the Graduate and Professional Students Association, said poor execution of the campaign prompted students to vote against the fee increase.

"I honestly believe that 'Got Vote?' played a role in poisoning the well," Collier said. "I think people liked it in theory, but the way they (the committee) advertised was distasteful to people."

Goad, who emphasized he was not in charge of the campaign, said that two days before the referendum "there was just a negative feeling on campus."

One student summed up those feelings in a letter published in the student newspaper:

"I have had it with the people who whine about how we need these expensive additions to the Student Recreation Complex and Memorial Union," wrote Nikki Cech, a journalism junior. "I don't know about you, but I pay to attend a university for the education, not for the bragging rights of having a nice weight room. If you want to increase cost of tuition to bring in more teachers, fund research and create more scholarships so more people can attend college for the sake of improving themselves, I'm all for it. But to make me pay for an indoor, elevating jogging track that I won't use is ridiculous."

When the votes were counted, students were clear that they didn't want to pay more. Fifty-seven percent of undergraduates and 81 percent of graduate students voted against higher fees.

The decision was devastating to Goad.

"The most important thing about this whole [referendum] was improving community and improving student life for future generations of students," he said. "That's why I was so heartbroken when it failed. I almost came to tears."

As for the SRC, it was back where it started.

"(We) lost all momentum going forward," Beadle said. "We lost all of what we had hoped to recapture, which was bring the facility back up to quality level."

Line up

Travis Brink, a business junior, impatiently dribbled a basketball as he stood on the sidelines of the "blue gym" in the SRC.

It was about 7:30 p.m. on a Wednesday night, and he and a half-dozen other students in tank tops, T-shirts and gym shorts sat with their backs against the wall, waiting to get a court.

Brink said he typically waits two to three hours each week to play basketball or use equipment in the SRC. He said he didn't vote in the referendum but now wishes he had.

"You just need more space," he said.

Travis Ives, who had just finished playing a game, disagreed. A housing and urban development senior, Ives said he usually waits only 15 to 30 minutes to get dropped into a basketball game.

Using the SRC is all about the right place at the right time, he said. Students usually pack the "blue gym" because the competition is more challenging.

"Even if you expanded the facilities, who's to say that this court wouldn't be the most popular court and that they would utilize all the courts evenly?" he asked.

Ives did say the center should expand the weight room and increase the number of cardiovascular machines.

"That's consistently too busy where sometimes you have wait [for] two or three different people to get to a piece of equipment," he said.

Crowding isn't the only sign of trouble at the SRC.

A message at the entrance to the building reads "Lights in the SRC may flicker due to construction. Sorry for the inconvenience."

Outside the weight room that Ives, Brink and others think is too small, a poster informs students that workers are finalizing repairs to the air conditioning and that it will be shut off in the weight room, small gyms and east side of the first floor.

Nearby, kinesiology senior Keith Tuttle was manning the front desk.

"It gets pretty gross in here," he said of the number of students packed into the room. "It's been pretty bad."

The air conditioning has been broken since before spring break, so the weight room has been relying on extra fans, Tuttle said.

"We've been getting a lot of complaints from students who say, 'This is where my tuition is going?' " he said.

Tuttle had this advice for students: Use the SRC if you're interested in general fitness, but "if you want to do heavy lifting, you shouldn't come here; go off campus."

Tough choices

For years, the SRC has been slipping behind in maintaining the building, according to Taylor.

"...We put a Band-aid here, and we fix things here," he said. "It works, but it isn't perfect."

Eventually, Band-aids won't be enough.

The SRC was a nice building when it was built 15 years ago, Beadle said, but its age is showing.

"We continue to go in the hole each year when we don't maintain; we continue to fall further and further behind," he said.

He estimated that it would cost $75,000 per year just to maintain the aging facility.

Taylor said the SRC needs an additional $2.1 million in the next five years just to bring the building up to "standard quality," which includes replacing equipment, repairing the building and expanding for a growing student population.

Instead, if the University cuts come through, there may be less money, not more.

That means some tough choices lie ahead, Taylor said.

"If we have to start make choices between replacing [field lights] or running an intramural program, what are you going to do?" he asked.

Goad said some fees might be hiked to help bridge the gap. For example, faculty, who now pay $50 per semester or $150 for an annual membership to the SRC, may be charged more. Intramural and recreation clubs also may have to pay more to use the facility.

Another option is to cut hours, Goad added. The SRC is generally open from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. on weekdays and from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekends, but if hours are cut, the building saves money by making staff work less. But, both Goad and Taylor say it is too soon to tell whether they will have to resort to these options.

Collier of the Graduateand Professional Student Association has suggested another referendum. But this time, he said, the fee increase should be just $12 a semester with a provision that the fee would go up each year to match the rate of inflation. That would at least allow the University to maintain the SRC, he said.

Instead of supporting a "grand facility," Collier said, "let's just take care of what is ours now."

The SRC will continue to serve students as best it can, he said.

"We aren't just going to sit and let things happen," he said. "Two years, three years, five years from now, an ASU student will have a less fulfilling experience if nothing is done. My opinion is that we cannot allow that to happen. We have to find solutions. The University has too many resources tied in this facility to let it fall apart."

Reach the reporter at lynh.bui@asu.edu.



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