Ailene Voisin

‘Mini-G1C’ on Sacramento State campus is new athletic director’s vision

Sac State AD Mark Orr: New events center is a priority

Sacramento State officials are awaiting the outcome of a feasibility study for a new events center to house the basketball team and other activities. All funding mechanisms and partnership possibilities are on the table.
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Sacramento State officials are awaiting the outcome of a feasibility study for a new events center to house the basketball team and other activities. All funding mechanisms and partnership possibilities are on the table.

Sacramento State athletic director Mark Orr, who was lured away from Saint Mary’s College two months ago and charged with overseeing construction of an on-campus events center, covers his turf, knows his sports and entertainment venues.

Football stadiums. Practice gyms. Baseball diamonds. Locker rooms. Weight rooms. Crash pads. Can’t forget the crash pads. A former prep standout who earned a football scholarship to Cal, Orr has been so busy overturning sticks and stones, poking around about potential funding sources for a facility estimated to cost between $70 million and $100 million, he hasn’t had time to arrange for new lodgings.

So the crash pad it is. At his father’s house in South Sac, in the neighborhood where it all began.

“I could have stayed at Saint Mary’s forever,” said Orr, a third generation Sacramentan whose wife and two boys will join him after the school year, “but this is home. The other part is personal, too. When I grew up, the Kings were just getting started, and I remember as kids how excited we were to say, ‘Wow, we have an NBA team.’ I always thought this city would support (Division I) sports if it had a real opportunity. I want to make college sports a pulse of the city.”

If Orr had expressed such thoughts as recently as a few years ago, he would have been advised to get his head checked, never mind his pulse. The capital city is known for politics, not consensus building. But the presence of Golden 1 Center – referred to by original Sacramento Kings managing partner Gregg Lukenbill as the “Miracle on J Street” – got Orr thinking. When Sac State president Robert Nelsen reached out and shared his own vision about a campus events center, Orr became intrigued, then excited. Now he spends his days reaching out to old friends, making new acquaintances, and trying to generate a buzz about the Hornets and their grandiose plans.

Nelsen is quick to point out that the university’s top priority is raising $20 million to replace the science building, which he claims is even more outdated than the Nest. “If you go into the science building now, you will see periodic tables from 1970,” he said. “I thought that was historical, but they are still teaching with it. If you go into one of the labs, where there are supposed to be Bunsen burners, they are using hair dryers. Once a new science building is finished, then it will be all hands on the Events Center.”

What is that place called? That’s a do-over. They need to retire that place (the Nest). If they get a decent facility on campus, that will totally change recruiting. More than that, it will change perception.

Randy Bennett, Saint Mary’s basketball coach

But back to the Nest. For a campus with an enrollment that exceeds 30,000, the 1,200-seat gym, which only added air conditioning a year ago, is more cramped than cozy. It is too small to accommodate graduations, conference tournaments, major concerts or popular speakers. Men’s basketball coach Brian Katz obsesses over the fact former President Bill Clinton has made repeated appearances at rival UC Davis but has never been seen at Sac State.

Saint Mary’s basketball coach Randy Bennett, who runs a powerhouse West Coast Conference program and worked under Orr for the previous 11 years, extended Katz a hand from afar: He is hoping to schedule Gaels games at G1C, he said, but would never consider playing at Sac State’s current premises.

“What is that place called?” Bennett asked. “That’s a do-over. They need to retire that place. If they get a decent facility on campus, that will totally change recruiting. More than that, it will change perception. I hate to see Mark go, but I have no doubt he will figure something out. He knows his craft from bottom to top. All you have to do is look what he accomplished over here. Even if you don’t have a huge budget, he finds a way.”

Orr, a compliance expert who became the youngest Division I athletic director when he was promoted in 2006, oversaw significant upgrades of McKeon Pavilion, the school’s tennis and rugby fields, and a $40 million renovation of the Joseph L. Alioto Recreation Center. During his last five years on the bucolic Moraga campus, he was credited with increasing department revenue through corporate sponsorships, development of an athletic brand, and the program’s first licensing and royalty contracts.

If it serves the community, then that certainly expands the number of stakeholders. ... We’re open to partnerships, and everything is on the table.

Mark Orr, Sacramento State athletic director, on a new events center

Sac State, of course, offers very different challenges. Orr essentially is coming home and jumping right back into the heat. Besides being a public institution with a 30,000-plus enrollment, the Hornets’ football program has been moribund and its attendance dreadful for years. Coach Jody Sears takes a 11-23 record into the 2017 season, the last year on his contract. Fixing football ranks high on the to-do lists of both Nelsen and Orr, whose father, Greg, has been a Major League Baseball scout for four decades.

But the push toward financing an events center is accelerating, seemingly by the day. Nelsen recently hired consulting firm Brailsford & Dunlavey to conduct another feasibility study on a new facility – the second in recent years and first during the current president’s tenure. Former coach/interim AD John Volek has been enlisted to lobby the area’s wealthy residents on golf courses and at social events, particularly those with Sac State ties. Orr is introducing himself to local politicians and officials with the Kings, River Cats and Republic FC.

As far as the cost, preferred funding mechanisms and on-campus site of a mid-size venue between 5,000-7,000 seats? All three topics are wide open to debate.

“Let’s get a real number (cost) from the feasibility study and go from there,” Orr said. “You hear it’s going to cost $100 million, but, shoot, maybe we can do it for $70 (million). You evaluate it several different ways. Is it just a basketball facility? Is it going to include partnerships? Is it strictly for our campus? If it serves the community, then that certainly expands the number of stakeholders. What about naming rights? The current proposed location is embedded in the middle of campus, but if you involve corporate sponsors, they might want the building closer to the freeway so it can be seen. We’re open to partnerships, and everything is on the table.”

Students overwhelmingly defeated a proposed $219 fee hike to fund the arena prior to the 2015 fall semester.

The Reno Bighorns, the Kings’ NBA Development League franchise? Minor-league hockey? Another WNBA franchise? Orr nods, smiles and reiterates his philosophy. He also is mindful of another delicate and unavoidable fact: Students overwhelmingly defeated a proposed $219 fee hike to fund the arena prior to the 2015 fall semester.

“I’m working really hard to get the events center going,” Orr said, “but at the same time, I’m not going to forget the student-athletes going to school right now. We have a facility that needs some immediate improvements (the Nest). We’re expanding the locker room, creating some more space. And we put an elevator up to the press box in the football stadium.”

Small steps, big dollars. The Golden 1 wasn’t built in a year, or even a decade. And now that he’s home, Orr plans to be around when the shovel strikes dirt on what he describes as a “mini G1C,” somewhere on campus.

Ailene Voisin: 916-321-1208, @ailene_voisin

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