U expansion on hold — for now

The University of South Dakota envisioned having a new basketball arena attached to a renovated DakotaDome sometime within the next 10 years.

However, the South Dakota Board of Regents (BOR) doesn't appear to have the same vision.

On Wednesday, Oct. 13, USD went before the regents in Rapid City to approve the planning of a $32.5 million basketball/volleyball arena and a $20 million expansion to the dome, which would increase the seating to 15,000.

Even though both projects earned a recommendation of approval from BOR executive director Jack Warner, the regents tabled them for the next three to six months.

Instead, the BOR will update its 10-year capital outlay to get a look at what future facilities are needed for all six South Dakota public universities.

One of the facilities the BOR does see in USD's future was a new Native American Academic Research Center. The regents gave university officials permission to start the initial planning for that building.

USD President James Abbott said the intention of the center is to house Native American studies, and the university needed to move forward with this project.

"We have various Native American efforts and we have them in different places, and the space isn't good," Abbott said. "I think a number of Native American students have felt insulted by the lack of space, and I don't disagree. This has been in the planning for a long time, and having it all in one place will be helpful."

As of now, the center is estimated to have a $5 million price tag, with funding from private donations and HEFF (Higher Education Funding Formula) funds. So far, there is no timetable of when groundbreaking will start on the center, or when it will be completed.

"We need a lead donor, and we will be visiting with some people who are interesting in helping build this," said Abbott about the fundraising effort for the center.

USD wasn't the only school affected by the decision, as the BOR also tabled plans for new residence halls at South Dakota State University and Black Hills State University, a $55 million football facility and a $35 million indoor football practice facility for SDSU.

While the delay in a decision to approve the preliminary stages of planning may be cause for concern, USD athletic director David Sayler said the ruling isn't a serious blow to the Dome renovation or the plans for a basketball/volleyball arena.

"It certainly seemed to me that a building committee would be formed in the sense that we were raising our own money for the project," he said. "But Jim (Abbott) had some discussions about the concerns statewide, and he had braced me that this was possible based on the political climate that is out there right now and the state budget climate."

Abbott added that BOR's reasoning for tabling both projects is, in part, because of a change in policy.

"A couple months ago, the BOR changed their policy to state that they wanted to be aware of a project at the beginning and not find out halfway through," he said. "We used to wait until we had half of the money raised, but they want to see it early and that's the downside. I don't think it's a setback, and we know it's still five to seven years out yet."

Abbott's advice to Sayler may have helped take some of the edge off the decision, even if it did delay the two projects.

"At the end of the day, it really didn't surprise me all that much," Sayler said. "At the same time, it does slow us down a little bit in terms of showing somebody the concept of what we want to do. But I still have it in my head of what I want to do, so it's basically me getting my ducks in a row."

Abbott said delaying both projects doesn't mean planning stops on both projects.

"This doesn't mean we can't look at places where to build the arena, and we can still talk about the concept; we just can't hire an architect," he said.

USD is planning for the funding for both projects to come from private donations, HEFF funds and federal grant funds.

But fundraising technically cannot start until the BOR approves the planning stages for the projects.

"I am not going to be out securing funds for the projects, though, because I don't think the Board of Regents would appreciate that for a project that hasn't been approved," Sayler said. "This was just a preliminary step and it still needs to happen. If that's three months from now, it's three months from now. If it's six months from now, it's six months from now. Whatever the time frame, we will make it work."

The new arena and renovations would be not only for athletics but also for education since HEFF funds, which Abbott can only use for education, would be tapped.

The new arena would allow the Health, Physical Education & Recreation (HPER) program to relocate and hold class in the new rooms. The HPER program is currently housed in the Dome.

"I've talked to people in the department, and there are not enough classrooms for it," Sayler said. "We are looking to better that."

The new facilities will also have a new science and exercise room.

Both projects come at a time during USD's transition to Division I athletics, but Sayler said the renovation to the Dome and the new arena would have had to happen despite the transition.

"These would've been necessary even if we were in Division II," Sayler said. "The Dome needs some TLC, and this project will allow that to happen. The Dome was also made for football, and then jerry-rigged for basketball and volleyball, so we need the arena."

Abbott said the BOR's decision is just a blip on the radar screen and the both projects will be approved eventually.

"I think the reason is we should take a longer look at what we are doing on campus. I don't think they intend to stop us to build buildings with private funds," he said. "It's not a surprise to anyone we need a basketball/volleyball arena. I think they (BOR) just wants to sit back and regroup, and that's fine by me."

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