Ailene Voisin

Opinion: Despite fee rejection by students, Sac State arena should be built

Sacramento State’s basketball gym, which barely seats 1,000 fans, turns off many recruits before Hornets coach Brian Katz can make an opening pitch.
Sacramento State’s basketball gym, which barely seats 1,000 fans, turns off many recruits before Hornets coach Brian Katz can make an opening pitch. Photo credit

This event center can still happen, and should happen, and just a hunch, but sometime in the not-too-distant future, it will happen. A 5,000-seat, $125 million arena will be erected and become the active, soulful centerpiece of an already lovely and leafy Sacramento State campus.

But that recent campaign? The referendum that ended Thursday with a thud – an overwhelming rejection of a $219-per-semester fee increase to fund the facility?

Event center advocates cracked their knuckles by knocking on the wrong doors. Ouch. The kids are all right; the kids are just financially strapped. In the best of economic times, this would have been a tough sell, and as every Einstein in the neighborhood will tell you, while California is inching toward recovery, residents still are minding their pennies and placing icepacks on their bank accounts.

At Sac State, tuition the past several years has soared like an eagle and stung like a hornet.

On a commuter campus with 29,349 students, 71 percent of whom attend full time, annual tuition and fees for those carrying a full load in the fall and spring semesters have jumped to $6,648. According to university officials, most students depend on financial aid. According to the officials, who can cite only anecdotal evidence, an even greater number of students have full- or part-time jobs.

“We were all college students once,” Hornets men’s basketball coach Brian Katz said, “so I understand their point of view. This is a tenuous economy. But we have to find another way to get this (funded). The students deserve a place where we can have big-time basketball, concerts, graduation and events. Here’s an example: Bill Clinton spoke at Davis (in October). Why didn’t he speak here? No disrespect to Davis, but Sacramento is the capital of California.”

Funny, isn’t it, how UC Davis invariably slips into the conversation? The rival Aggies, who are coping with their own tuition issues, already boast a modern football stadium and sports Pavilion that hosts basketball and volleyball games, events and concerts, and not just one appearance by the popular former president, but four visits since 2002.

Don’t ignore the appealing Mondavi Center, either. Though attendees standing outside occasionally catch a whiff of the cows who share the UCD campus, the venue is appealing to performers and easily appreciated from Interstate 80.

That said, California is a unique and wonderful place, with wealth generated in a variety of spaces and offices. There are fine wineries in the foothills, too, for instance. On this side of the river, there are wealthy developers who could survive a squeeze play and perhaps would even welcome the attention. There also are several new Kings owners and executives, including a principal partner (Vivek Ranadive) who is spending more time in the area. The son of one of his closest employees recently enrolled at Sac State.

Yet, the most important, impressive and potentially influential numbers are these: 100,000 Hornets alumni reside in the Sacramento metropolitan area. Shooting for the sun, the moon and the stars, if all of them donated $1,140, construction on an event center could begin while the other Clinton – the one who once said it took a village to raise a child – is in the full throes of a presidential campaign.

“I call it ‘A Call to All,’ ” Katz said while jogging before the Hornets played Thursday in Abilene, Texas. “Whatever anybody can give. You can’t tell me that with all the people who live in our community and went to Sac State, who have some connection to the school, that we couldn’t raise a reasonable amount of money to offset the (impact) of the referendum. Selfishly, I can see it.”

He also sees this: His Hornets play in a junior high-caliber gym that barely seats 1,000 and turns off dozens of recruits before Katz can make an opening pitch. The Pavilion, by comparison, is a bright, airy, attractive venue that seats 5,670 for basketball. Ironically, before losing to Abilene Christian, Sac State was off to its best start (4-1) since the university moved up to Division I and joined the Big Sky Conference.

“In this day and time, with this economy, going private and raising funds is the way to go,” Katz said. “For us, we have to give people a reason to get behind us and get excited. That’s not on the community. That’s on us. Let’s just do our part, keep getting better, because ultimately you have to win.”

Katz’s original “Call to All” idea is in its infancy and, admittedly, is far from fully formed. But Pam Stewart, chairman of the University Foundation that serves as the school’s fundraising arm, said discussions about a Plan B are under way, and everything is on the table.

“We’re not giving up,” she said. “That’s the important message. We heard the students loud and clearly. But we will figure it out. We will find a way.”

Call The Bee’s Ailene Voisin, (916) 321-1208. Bee staff writer Phillip Reese contributed to this report.