Survey: Students split over stadium, predict fee increase

Bryce Haugen

University students overwhelmingly believe the price of the on-campus stadium will continue to increase, according to a Minnesota Daily poll. And, the poll said, though large numbers of students expect to foot the bill, they’d rather not.

The February poll found student attitudes toward TCF Bank Stadium, which is slated to open on the east edge of campus in fall 2009, are split down the middle. Fifty-one percent of students surveyed said the University needs the project, while 49 percent said the new home for Gopher football is unnecessary.

Students fear higher fee

Eighty-one percent of students polled expect costs for the $288.5 million, 50,000-seat stadium to increase, and 74 percent of students think they will be asked to pay at least some of the difference. That’s a prospect students oppose 58 percent to 33 percent.

But in a statement Thursday, University President Bob Bruininks ruled out the possibility of an additional Student Services Fee increase.

“Students will not pay more than $12.50 a semester toward stadium construction,” he said.

The stadium bill, passed last spring by the Legislature, provided state funding for 48 percent of the project over 25 years. The final proposal called for a $12.50 per semester increase in Student Services Fees starting in fall 2009. That’s one-quarter of the initially proposed jump and would generate $13 million for the facility.

On Jan. 3, the Board of Regents approved a $40 million increase to pay for rising inflation, complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act and improving stadium quality and construction site conditions. University officials set up a separate financing plan that includes University bond money interest and other athletic department revenue.

Jason Korstange, a spokesman for TCF Bank, which purchased the naming rights to the on-campus stadium, said the University hasn’t asked the company to contribute more to the stadium.

The University still needs to scrounge up $32 million to pay the original construction costs, assistant athletics director Phil Esten said.

In an interview last month, Bruininks said the stadium in no way conflicts with the University’s academic mission, pointing to Target Corporation’s recent $5 million donation. The company pledged $2 million for the stadium, $2 million for the Weisman Art Museum and $1 million to help expand the business school.

“Nearly every (stadium) donor has also made an academic donation,” Bruininks said.

But former Council of Graduate Students President Britt Johnson said she doesn’t fully follow the president’s logic.

“Why not just donate $5 million to the academic mission?” she asked. “That’s a lot of scholarships and fellowships for graduate students and undergrads.”

During Johnson’s COGS presidency from 2004 to 2005, the group passed a position statement opposing use of student fees for the stadium. She said a fee increase for teaching and research assistants – a group generally less enthused about collegiate sports than undergrads – amounts to a salary cut.

The full Graduate and Professional Student Assembly approved the same resolution, while its undergraduate equivalent, the Minnesota Student Association, expressed support for a plan calling for the smallest fee increase possible.

The stadium’s an eventuality, MSA President Max Page said, and “we’ve been fighting to make sure the students get the most use out of it.”

Allowing students to use the facilities for intramural sports and other activities is something MSA is pushing for, he said.

“It’s going to be a good facility,” Page said. “It’s going to be more than a stadium.”

According to Esten, the assistant athletics director, the University is also developing “a comprehensive benefits package that is directly tied to the (Students Services) Fee that will support construction.”

Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, whose district encompasses the University and stadium site, said she doesn’t see how the stadium is consistent with the University’s goal to become one of the top-three research universities in the world within the decade.

“I ended up sort of reluctantly voting for it,” Kahn said. “I was never a real big supporter of it.”

Student perceptions

Although only half of students said in the survey the University needs a new stadium, 62 percent said there’s a moderate or high likelihood the stadium will “improve the quality of campus life.” And a stronger majority – 81 percent – believed it has a high or moderate likelihood to draw better football players to campus.

“Recruiting will be absolutely affected by the brand-new stadium,” said recently hired Gopher football coach Tim Brewster. “It’s going to be the finest on-campus football stadium in the country.”

The prospects of improved campus spirit, better attendance and playing in a “Big Ten-caliber” facility, Brewster said, will have an intangible effect on the team’s performance.

“Obviously, our football players will reflect the energy and exuberance that will surround that stadium,” he said.

One of those players, Adam Weber, said he hopes he’s the guy who throws the first touchdown and delivers the first hand-off in TCF Bank Stadium, though the redshirt freshmen quarterback, who will be a junior when the facility opens, said he knows that’s far from certain.

What is certain, said Weber, a Minnesota native and lifelong Gopher fan, is that “this place will bring fans in,” unlike the notoriously lackluster Metrodome college football atmosphere.

Students’ views toward the stadium will change over time, Weber said.

“Take a poll after the stadium opens,” he said, “and I think you’ll find that most people will be happy.”

Ryan Frailich already is.

The 2006 University alumnus co-founded Goldy’s Groundbreaking Crew, a group that disseminated information about the project throughout campus. The lukewarm stadium support partly stems from the misconceptions about the student fees and not understanding why the Gophers wanted out of the Metrodome.

Frailich said he’s had plans for Sept. 12, 2009, when the Gophers hop across the river to their new digs, since the bill passed.

“I’m going back no matter where I’m living,” he said from Clarksdale, Miss. “I’m going to be in that stadium opening day.”