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Gateway project still a dream at EWU

A.D. Chaves believes Roos Field expansion will happen

Patience doesn’t come naturally for Eastern Washington athletic director Bill Chaves. Better than anyone, Chaves can relate to the restlessness of Eagles football fans. Many are waiting impatiently for the program to take the next step forward with the Gateway Project, a potentially game-changing, multi-use endeavor that’s been up in the air for 21/2 years while the school courts potential donors. Among other things, the Gateway would add 10,000 seats, with luxury boxes, to Roos Field while raising the profile of a program that’s already a winner on the field. Some sizzle with the steak, in other words. But big dreams cost big money – about $60 million in the case of the Gateway, which was first announced in April of 2012. Schematic drawings were unveiled six months later. Then the project entered a so-called “quiet phase” that’s entering its third year. For some fans, the silence has been deafening, two years of no-news-is-bad-news. The time for action is now, they argue, as Roos Field has sold out all six games this year while a nationally-prominent Eastern program chases its third straight Big Sky Conference title. Chaves appreciates the enthusiasm, to a point. “I like the fact that’s there’s not patience,” Chaves said. “I don’t have patience, I want things to be done tomorrow … but anything worth doing is going to be a heavy lift,” said Chaves, noting that the University of Washington needed eight years, from concept to reality, to renovate Husky Stadium. At the same time, Chaves disdains the naysayers, and says he’s a big believer in the project’s ultimate success. “Anything is possible if you’re willing to be creative,” Chaves said.
A complicated project
The Gateway is intended as more than a football facility; rather, the vision is a figurative bridge over Washington Street, which physically and culturally separates the athletic department from the rest of campus. Much of the Gateway’s 350,000 square feet would be dedicated to retail outlets and commercial offices, a medical/physical therapy clinic and student meeting facilities. However, the bulk of the space would cater to athletics: premium seating for football, locker rooms and storage space for football and band, a student-athlete academic success center, a weight room, a football operations office and more. It would replace the existing bleachers on the east side of Roos Field – long a source of embarrassment to some Eagles fans, who compare it to a high-school facility. Gone too would be the track and the concessions/bathroom eyesore at the south end of the field. If only the school had a spare $60 million. In the meantime, “We continue to explore private funding options and remain excited about the potential vision,” said Mike Westfall, Eastern’s Vice-President for University Advancement and Executive Director of the EWU Foundation, which is leading the funding drive.
Few funding alternatives
At first glance, the school would appear to have several avenues to raise all or part of the $60 million: other institutions have tapped a combination of athletic department reserves, television and licensing revenue, student fees, university funds, state assistance and bonds. For now at least, few of those options are practical in the case of the Gateway:
  • Eastern’s athletic budget in 2013-14 totaled $11,469,560, the second-smallest in the Big Sky Conference. Despite sponsoring just five sports for men and seven for women and getting some big paydays for football games against schools from the Pac-12 Conference, the department still lost $68,467.
  • Television revenue and licensing fees – a major source of funding for Washington State’s recent renovation of Martin Stadium – is negligible for Big Sky teams. While WSU earned $26,640,976 in rights and licensing fees, Eastern received $805,386.
  • Like most Big Sky schools, Eastern’s athletic department gets most of its funding from the university. Last year, school funding totaled $6,037,849 and student fees $2,200,000 – together they accounted for 71.8 percent of all athletic department revenues. Those numbers underscore the political nature of the project and the need to make the Gateway a cooperative venture.
  • Universities routinely seek state assistance for major capital projects, but the funding process is lengthy and the outcome uncertain. Neither UW nor WSU used state funds for their stadium projects, although UW approached lawmakers before being rebuffed.
  • Ultimately, UW funded the Husky Stadium project on its own, by issuing 30-year bonds – another option that Eastern could use should it run out of options. In fact, the University Recreation Center, a $26.2 million facility completed in 2008, was mostly financed through revenue bonds.
However, as Chaves notes, the school has more on its plate than the Gateway Project; if another bond issue has been discussed, it hasn’t been made public.
What’s next?
The university’s preferred avenue for the Gateway Project is private funding, which Westfall and others have diligently pursued for more than two years. The vision is there, illustrated by glossy fliers that are also available online. Deep-pocket donors have been identified and courted, but nothing has been announced. Meanwhile, the athletic department hasn’t stood still. In the past year, Chaves has expanded the parking lot for football tailgaters and added a fan shop adjoining Roos Field, thus adding the game-day experience in a “very micro-way,” in Chaves’ words. That hasn’t mollified some fans, who’ve turned the old “Field of Dreams” mantra on its ear. In other words, “They’ve come, so let’s build it – right now.” On one Eagle fan site, they’re touting the cost-effectiveness of a steel-aluminum grandstand for a fraction of the cost of the Gateway Project; at the same time, they’re wondering out loud if the school has a cutoff date for moving in another direction should private donors fail to materialize. At this point, it doesn’t. Meanwhile, Chaves is looking at the big picture. “There’s not a day that goes by when we’re not working this, it’s not one of these things that happens overnight,” Chaves said.
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