A new recreation center planned for the heart of Eastern Washington University’s campus in Cheney has stumbled into student opposition over rising costs and the prominence of an ice rink.
As construction costs go up, the project has scaled back its basketball courts and running track – while keeping the ice rink and multiuse surface at the center of the project.
Some students question the inclusion of the rink, saying it will be expensive to maintain and less useful to students than more gym or court space. Steve Marriott, an outdoor recreation major and member of the student government, is helping lead a petition drive to ask for a re-evaluation of student priorities for the $22 million project.
Marriott works at the school’s recreation center, and he said it’s common to hear complaints about crowded basketball courts. On the other hand, he said, “I’ve never had anyone come up and say, ‘Hey man, I’m tired of there not being any ice space.’ “
The chief administrator on the project, vice president for business services Rick Romero, said that when about 1,000 students were surveyed in the early stages of planning for the center, the ice rink was the No. 2 amenity they wanted – and the most requested one among women. No. 1 overall was general recreation space.
Students then voted overwhelmingly in January 2005 to assess themselves a $55 quarterly fee to pay for half the project.
Romero also said that it’s a lot more than just an ice rink. It can be covered to create more basketball courts and other recreation space, as well as hosting concerts and a wide range of other events.
“Students have been tremendously involved in this project,” Romero said. “It’s just not, perhaps, the group of students who came in this fall.”
Both sides agree on one thing: the ice rink is a rarity, if not unique, among student recreation centers around the country. To the university, that’s an advantage at a time where schools are building bigger and flashier rec centers to attract students. They often do that by having students vote to charge themselves for all or part of the work – or, rather, by having students vote to have future students bear that cost.
The Chronicle of Higher Education calls the trend the “amenities arms race.”
At Washington State University, students still pay about $200 a year for the $39 million rec center that opened five years ago, complete with fireplace, elevated track, nutrition center and fancy coffee. WSU students recently approved charging about $240 a year to future students to pay for an expansion of the Compton Union Building.
In Moscow, students at the University of Idaho are charged about $236 a year to pay off construction and help operate its $16 million recreation center, which has a climbing wall the school bills as the “largest indoor climbing center on any U.S. college or university campus.”
The new rec center at Eastern is also targeted toward helping bring in members of the surrounding community, said Alicia Kinne, student president. Nonstudents will likely be able to pay to use recreational facilities, and the university will rent out time on the ice – though student activities would be the priority.
“We’re looking at how we can bring people from the city of Cheney up to the Eastern campus, and I think this project will be a large part of that puzzle,” she said.
She said the student council – on which she does not vote – doesn’t support another survey of student opinions because sufficient time and effort has been spent on that part of the process.
Eastern has spent $1.6 million on design and pre-construction work, and the board of trustees is ready to consider construction bids in April, Romero said. After the controversy over the changes arose, he presented other options to the student government – including getting rid of the rink – and the board voted to stick with the original plans, he said.
After complaints arose over the fact that the student government had kicked a reporter from the student newspaper out of a meeting two days before the vote, the student council decided it would repeat the vote next week to ensure it was legal, Kinne said.
Construction would begin this summer, with the new center scheduled to open by fall 2007. Marriott argues that while students were surveyed and voted on the project, they were not consulted in any significant way once the project started to change. They approved a $22 million project that was to include the ice rink, two basketball courts, a couple of multipurpose gym spaces, a large cardio room and lockers, the outdoor program and an elevated, 200-meter track.
“Everyone voted for all that,” he said. “For $55 a quarter, that’s great. We’re getting a very good deal.”
Construction costs went up between 10 percent and 15 percent, and the plans were altered to eliminate a basketball court and the multiuse rooms, reduce the size of the cardio room and lockers, and shorten the track to 100 meters.
Romero said those changes were made because basketball courts and recreation space are already present in other campus facilities, while the ice rink and multiuse area bring a whole new amenity to campus.
Marriott says he’s not sure why there is such a commitment to the ice rink, but he mentioned “the elephant in the room” on campus is the strong interest in hockey of interim President Brian Levin-Stankevich, who has been a coach and adviser for the club hockey team at EWU.
That team is losing its regular rink when Planet Ice closes after this season.
Romero said Levin-Stankevich, who is leaving EWU for a job at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, was not involved in the planning process and, while he was happy that students supported an ice rink, he didn’t influence the selection.
“This was never, ever in any way intended to please the president,” he said. “It was intended to please the students.”