BOWLING GREEN - Twenty years ago, a student-led initiative brought about the construction of a state-of-the-art student recreation center at Bowling Green State University.
Two decades later, students at BGSU seem to be putting some momentum behind the ever-present discussion over the need for a convocation center that would house a basketball arena - and a whole lot more.
The Falcons have been playing their basketball games in Anderson Arena since 1960, but the aging facility is also used for graduation ceremonies, an open house for high school students, and concerts. There is no air conditioning, the parking would be a nightmare only if it improved, and with a capacity of less than 5,000, Anderson Arena will be the Mid-American Conference's smallest venue when Northern Illinois plays its final game of this season in the Chick Evans Field House.
This fall, Northern Illinois will open a $35.8 million convocation center - a multi-purpose facility that is along the lines of what BGSU has talked about for years.
“It's no secret that Anderson Arena is not fulfilling the needs of the students any more, and this seems like a very good time to move forward with an active discussion about building a convocation center,” said Jarrod Hirschfeld, student representative to the university's board of trustees. “It seems to be the major piece that is missing from this campus.”
Hirschfeld said a convocation center would not only permit BG to consolidate its scattered athletic offices into one facility and provide a basketball venue with the option of having income-producing naming rights, luxury boxes and suites, but it would also solve one of the longest-running headaches on campus - the graduation dilemma. Each May, BG has to hold three separate graduation ceremonies in one day because it can not fit the students, parents and family members into the current arena. And if mom and dad don't arrive early, they have to watch their child graduate on a TV screen in nearby Olscamp Hall.
“Every day I think of another reason why we need to make this happen,” Hirschfeld said. “It's the opinion of many students that now is the time to move this beyond the informal discussion phase. Last year, President Bush spoke in Toledo, and we would have liked to have had him come here, but there is no facility on campus to accommodate such an event.”
Plans for several variations of a convocation center have been drawn up, and university president Sidney Ribeau, athletic director Paul Krebs and men's basketball coach Dan Dakich have visited other arenas on an informal fact-finding tour. Ribeau was out of town and unavailable for comment, while Krebs said he wants to have his department ready if plans for such a facility start to get legs.
“With any facility initiative, our goal is to be prepared, if asked, so that we've thought it through and have a plan of attack, and have done our homework,” Krebs said. “Certainly it's a discussion that people have engaged me in since the day I came on campus. I don't think there's anything new to the discussion. The question continues to be when, or if and when.”
Commercial architecture consultants visited Anderson Arena last year and witnessed a basketball game there, and then answered in the affirmative when asked if they could take that sacred Anderson Arena aura that gives the Falcons one of the best home-court advantages in the MAC, and preserve it in a new arena. Dakich is in a wait-and-see mode, but hopeful that BGSU would not make the same mistake a number of other schools have made by building an arena that is too big, too sterile and devoid of any home court advantage.
“Sure this place is old and it has its flaws, but we also have something pretty special going on here,” Dakich said. “When our crowd is involved, I'm not sure there are too many college basketball environments that are a whole lot better. We have to be careful to protect that.”
There have been a number of times when BG has had to turn away fans at Anderson Arena, which Marshall coach Greg White once referred to unaffectionately as “that high school gym.” It is the place where everyone else hates to play, and Hirschfeld said that although about 1,500 students attended the win over Michigan in November, that number would likely have been 3,000-4,000, if enough seats were available.
“Athletics will be a part of it, but the kind of building we're talking about has to be much more,” Hirschfeld said. “It might be five or six years out, but I think there is a way to get this done.”
The cost of a convocation center would be around $30-35 million, and the most popular potential location appears to be at Perry Stadium, where the facility would close in one end of the stadium, similar to the $29.6 million convocation center built at Eastern Michigan in 1998.
Hirschfeld said such a project could be funded through a number of sources, including several major donors and that money for a new convocation center would come from different areas and would not impact faculty and staff budgets for salaries at BGSU.
“There are funds out there, but the bucket of money that would finance such a project is a completely different bucket from the one where salaries and day-to-day operational budgets come from,” he said. “Without major private donors, I don't see this happening, but I think they are out there.”
Hirschfeld said that now that the extensive renovation of the BGSU student union is complete, he hopes the board of trustees will view the convocation center project with more of a sense of urgency when they hold their quarterly meeting next week.
“We know things are tight budget-wise, but we can't stop trying to grow,” he said. “The students wanted the Rec Center and were willing to make some sacrifices for it, and it happened. I think the majority of students support this and want this convocation center. We need to get a feel for where the board wants to go with this.”