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Idaho AD Rob Spear, new special asst. to president, Michael Perry, speak on arena funding

Michael Perry wasn't quite sure what the future held for him after moving to Moscow. A native of Massachusetts, he was following his wife, Mary Kay McFadden, who was named the University of Idaho's Vice President of Advancement this year. 

But he wasn't out of work for long when University of Idaho President Chuck Staben took a look at his resume. 

Perry has been fundraising since 1985, raising over $300 Million for numerous secondary schools throughout the country, including specific donations to renovate athletic facilities such as a golf course, a hockey rink renovation and gym complexes.  

Perry joined the university in September as a special assistant to the president, with his focus on helping the president with key fundraising projects. 

One of those priorities for Staben right now is the construction of the Events Center on campus. 

"The President considers the arena one of his top priorities," Perry said. "With that said, we are really in the beginning stages of anything we’re doing."

The university formally announced the Events Center project to the State Board of Education in February. The plan is for a 4,600 to 5,000 seat privately-financed arena priced at $30 Million, including a practice facility and a meeting area for conventions. The facility, which would be built on the north lawn adjacent to the Kibbie Dome, would be home to men's and women's basketball, volleyball and also be used for concerts, conventions, football pregame events and other campus functions. 

Perry is well aware of the history of the project, which has been discussed since 1969 and for numerous reasons has never been able to result in shovels hitting the dirt. 

"Here we are in 2015, there are reasons why it hasn’t gained the foothold that it should. We need to be sure we can create the momentum and enthusiasm for the project so it can be successful, which would be a huge boost for the university, athletic department and the basketball programs if we can get this done," Perry said. 

Perry wouldn't consider himself a lead fundraiser on the project. Instead, he sees himself as a strategist. 

"We’re all a team, fundraising works best when you get the right person in front of the right individual. It could be Rob Spear, it might be president Staben," Perry said. "My job is to help figure that out and get them face to face with the donors. The last thing, it’s not about me, I’m the strategist, I’m helping to put together what a game plan is and how we can go after this, and then try to make the right connections."

The project is currently in a silent phase in terms of publicly asking for donations. The university is offering naming rights to the arena, the practice facility and the court for gifts it hopes amounts to $10 Million. 

"We are making progress, we are still in the silent phase where we are soliciting lead donors, lead gifts," Spear said. " ... We anticipate over the next three to four months that we’re really going to make some progress there."

The project will be completely privately financed, whether from private individuals or corporate sponsors. 

"The president would like to do this with as much private philanthropy as we can, that would mean individual donors and corporate donors," Perry said. "We’re looking right now to see who in the corporate world would want to step up to be represented here at the university of Idaho in a first class facility and then see what kind of private philanthropy there is also."

The hope is for fundraising to hit a public stage once about $15 Million has been raised. 

That's where Idaho's improving football program, which went 4-8 this season after three straight 1-11 seasons, could play a part in getting this project done. 

"Football is such a driver of everything, it’s the world we live in," Spear said. "Football has made tremendous strides ... (football coach) Paul (Petrino)’s done a great job of putting together a team that is starting to believe."

Idaho has a generous donor base giving to the Vandal Scholarship Fund, Spear says, but widening the donor base is a goal of the athletic department moving forward. Some of that momentum could also help with arena fundraising once the project goes public.

"We’re really focused on growing our base, getting more donors. When you look at the dollars we’ve raised, we’re very competitive if not at the top of the Sun Belt and almost at the top of the Big Sky," Spear said. "But when you look at the volume of donors, that’s where we have some work to do. We need to broaden our base, and if we broaden our base, then eventually we’ll be able to achieve our fundraising goals for scholarships and full cost of attendance."

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Here are some other tibdits from my talks with Spear and Perry.

Rob Spear on Idaho implementing Cost of Attendance at Idaho and if schools in the Sun Belt and Big Sky have talked about it: "There’s a lot of talk about schools wanting to do it but I have not seen anybody yet bite the bullet. I think it’s inevitable for schools to maintain their competitiveness will have to do some form of cost of attendance and we’re no different. We’re not there yet, we really need to have that as one of our goals in the future to provide full cost of attendance to our student athletes. ... (It) would need to be funded through the VSF."

Perry, on why the project is so important to Staben: "He’s someone who wants to be here and wants to commit to Idaho for a number of years, most presidencies last seven years ... I think, people have to get to know him a little bit and hear him talk and hear what’s important to him. For some people, a basketball arena, it’s a small percentage of people who would think an arena is important. Now, when you phrase it in terms of saying here’s the university as a whole, here’s where we’re trying to go, the athletic program is an important part of this. It can do so many different things. It’s an events center, commencement, concerts, conference facility with conference space in it, it’s got a lot of pieces to it. At the end of the day it’s still going to be a basketball arena. If you can create an atmosphere with 5,000 screaming vandals in there, I’d take my chances in terms of what the Vandals can do. Getting on that bottom ticker of ESPN, are you on there and are you winning?"

Perry on potential challenges: "Athletics is sometimes hard because you have to really hit the right people to be able to get it done. Today, in the corporate world they do want to see more visibility in terms of what might happen for them but it’s gotta be the right situation ... Moscow I hope we can pull it off here, but Moscow, we are not in the center of the universe. And it’s going to have to be right person, right corporation that really wants to step up or someone deciding ‘This has to happen for the Vandals.’ Hopefully with everybody pushing in the right direction we can get that done, but that remains to be done."

On Perry's fundraising experience: Perry, a Massachusetts native, worked at Deerfield Academy in Deerfield, Mass., for 18 years and participated in a $10 Million renovation of its gym complex. He also worked at The Westminster Schools in Atlanta for 5 years, the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., for over two years and Culver Academies in Indiana for 5 years. Perry helped renovate the golf course and hockey arena while at Culver.  

Sean Kramer
Sean Kramer is a freelance correspondent who covers the University of Idaho football team and men's basketball team.

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