Sacramento State students reject fee hike for new arena

Hornet basketball teams play in a 1,000-seat gym, and athletic backers have long hoped for a larger venue. But students overwhelmingly rejected a new fee this week to pay for a 5,000-seat arena.
Hornet basketball teams play in a 1,000-seat gym, and athletic backers have long hoped for a larger venue. But students overwhelmingly rejected a new fee this week to pay for a 5,000-seat arena. Sacramento Bee file

Sacramento State students overwhelmingly rejected a $438 annual fee increase this week to build a 5,000-seat arena on campus, joining a wave of discontent over increasing costs at public universities across California.

The $125 million events center would have provided a significantly larger venue for the school’s Division I basketball teams, as well as played host to lectures, special events, concerts and other athletic and recreational programs. It would have continued an effort by President Alexander Gonzalez to update facilities and build amenities to transform the university from a commuter school to a bustling residential campus.

But 79.6 percent of student voters opposed the idea.

“The vote Tuesday and Wednesday was obviously, to me, a referendum on a fee hike, not a referendum on an events center and arena,” said Bill Macriss, interim athletic director at CSUS. “They spoke loud and clear. They did not want to make that commitment.”

Sacramento State students have historically been amenable to new fees. In 2004, they voted to charge themselves $220 annually to build a fitness center and events center. A $71 million fitness facility dubbed The Well was completed in 2010, but the events center did not materialize because of rising construction costs, said Gina Curry, director of the Student Financial Services Center and university bursar.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, almost 7,000 voters – 25 percent of the student population – weighed in. Most logged onto their computers to vote against it by the nearly 4-to-1 ratio.

“I don’t believe it is necessary to have an events center,” said senior Jennifer Blair, noting that Sacramento already has plans for a new sports arena downtown. “And tuition is too high.”

Gonzalez said he could have unilaterally pursued a fee hike to pay for an arena, but he allowed students to decide the matter because of concern about rising tuition and fee costs.

Last month, students at UC Davis and other UC campuses staged walkouts to protest a nearly 28 percent increase in tuition over the next five years. Statewide, students also have rallied in opposition to “student success fees,” which some CSU campuses have used to circumvent a systemwide tuition freeze and pay for more faculty and classes.

The university president has the power to proceed with the arena fee without student approval, something he did in 2009 after students rejected a fee to fund The State Hornet newspaper and an annual fee for athletics. Gonzalez signaled Thursday he does not intend to override the latest campus vote.

“The democratic process has been followed,” Gonzalez said in a statement. “Although I could have implemented the student fee last spring ... I wanted students to have the opportunity to vote on the issue.”

Currently, Sacramento State has the 11th highest student fees in the 23-campus California State University system, charging $1,176 annually to fund the student newspaper, health and counseling services, University Union, recreational sports, intercollegiate athletics and spirit leaders and student government. This is tacked onto the $5,472 annual tuition that all full-time CSU students pay, for a total of $6,648.

The new fee would have boosted the university’s fees to the sixth highest in the system with a total tuition and fee cost of $7,086.

Public universities in California have only a few options when it comes to financing nonacademic buildings like event centers, athletic facilities, health centers and dining halls. Usually, they tap student fees or turn to donors. They are prohibited from using state money to build facilities that are not for academic uses, Curry said.

UC Davis used a succession of student fees to build a new football stadium, support its move up to Division I athletics, pay for a new recreation center and upgrade its coffeehouse. UCD now has the highest student fees among the nine University of California undergraduate campuses.

To help fund its $321 million renovation of Memorial Stadium, UC Berkeley sold expensive seat licenses for prime viewing locations and access to luxury amenities. But that effort fell short, and the school is looking for additional methods to pay off construction debt, such as selling more seats to corporations and generating higher television revenue. Some fear the school may have to tap funds dedicated to other campus purposes.

California State University, Sacramento, has its own history with donor-funded facilities, relying on more than $2 million from developer Alex Spanos to upgrade its track and field complex. That effort helped the university and city land the 2000 and 2004 U.S. Track and Field Olympic Trials. The school also built its Broad Fieldhouse with $11.5 million in private and corporate donations, including $2 million from the Eli and Edythe L. Broad Foundation.

Student fees are a way for colleges and universities to ask students to pay for more resources and to do so outside of regular college tuition, said Kristan Venegas, associate professor of clinical education at the University of Southern California. “They can really be a useful way to increase a budget line quick.”

But Venegas said that ideally, university projects are funded by a small amount of student fees and mostly by private donors. “You want the bulk of it to come from external sources and not from students,” she said.

The referendum has been a hot topic on the Sacramento campus this semester, drawing a large crowd to debate the topic last week and prompting the State Hornet to run an eight-page special section on the topic.

Proponents argued that the events center would improve the university’s status and make it attractive to students, alumni and donors. They said it would allow for graduation ceremonies on campus instead of at Sleep Train Arena, and that visits by popular speakers – such as a recent visit to UC Davis by former President Bill Clinton – could take place at Sacramento State.

Opponents argued that the facility would have been too costly for students to shoulder and that higher fees wouldn’t have been fair to current students who would be long gone by the time the events center would have been built. They said the arena would have reduced parking spaces and increased traffic. They also pointed out that students had voted to increase fees for such a facility before, but the project ran out of money and was never built.

Students this week said they weren’t opposed to the events center as much as they were adamantly against the fee. Freshman Joshua Salazar said he can’t afford to add any more fees to his student loan burden.

“Current students have a much more heightened awareness of the cost of their education and they are closely looking at student fees when deciding what school to go to,” Venegas said.

Even interim Athletic Director Macriss and basketball coach Brian Katz said they understand the students’ viewpoint, although they wished the referendum had passed. “It’s $500,” Katz said. “That’s a lot of money.”

Without a new arena, the men’s and women’s basketball teams will continue to play in The Nest, a facility smaller than some high school gyms. The 1,000-seat venue, built in 1954, is one of the oldest and smallest in NCAA Divsion I basketball.

Macriss isn’t daunted. “At the end of the day, the baskets are still 10 feet high and the courts are the same dimensions,” he said.

Katz said the team’s recruiting philosophy is to be upfront about the facility. He said it’s likely the team has lost some recruits because the school lacked an arena, but “if that’s their choice, we don’t want them.”

Campus leaders haven’t given up on the idea of an events center yet.

“As we look to the future, the University Foundation stands ready to provide long-term fundraising support for student scholarships, academic programs and capital projects, including the state-of-the-art Event Center that will serve our students and strengthen campus connection with the Sacramento region,” said Pam Stewart, chair of the University Foundation, Sacramento State’s fundraising arm.

Call The Bee’s Diana Lambert, (916) 321-1090. Follow her on Twitter @dianalambert.