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January 22, 1998

State pledges $138 million for Pitt projects

Under a heated tent on the north side of Pitt Stadium — the proposed site of the University's long-awaited, $52 million convocation center — Gov. Tom Ridge yesterday told a mostly jubilant throng of Pitt employees, students, trustees, alumni, government officials, community leaders and media types that the state will give the University $138 million in capital funds over the next five years.

The money will include:

* $38 million toward construction of the convocation center, which is $25 million more than the state had previously pledged to the project. The University will provide the remaining $14 million of the $52 million total cost.

* $100 million, to be provided at $20 million per year, to support other Pitt facility projects identified as priorities in the University's 10-year facilities plan, completed last year.

Of those projects, the one that Ridge and Chancellor Mark Nordenberg chose to highlight was the Multi-Purpose Academic Complex (MPAC) that Pitt hopes to build on the corner of Forbes Avenue and Bouquet Street. The building is expected to cost $32.4 million. It would house the undergraduate College of Business Administration and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences' computer science and psychology departments, and is expected to free up better space for other FAS departments.

The convocation center would include a 12,500-seat arena for men's and women's basketball as well as other conference and national athletic events, plus practice facilities, offices and locker rooms. The facility also would house Pitt's annual commencement, lectures, expositions and concerts.

Chancellor Nordenberg and Pitt Athletics Director Steve Pederson declined to predict when the University will break ground on the convocation center, which (like MPAC) will require some funding from Pitt along with approval from City Council and the city Planning Commission.

But Nordenberg did tell reporters, "I can't be specific, but I certainly hope that it [the center] will be up before the passage of five years." And Pederson said that Pitt men's basketball coach Ralph Willard "absolutely" will be able to promise new recruits that they will have the chance to play in the new center before the end of their Panther careers.

Now that the University has 75 percent of the funding in hand for the convocation center, raising the remaining money should not delay the project, Nordenberg said. "There will be challenges presented in [Pitt] raising the millions of dollars that will be required," he said. "But I think we will be able to position ourselves to move forward as fast as we can with the project, and that raising additional money will not slow us down." The Panthers' recent, successful football season and their Liberty Bowl appearance should stimulate increased donations for the convocation center and other Pitt capital projects, Nordenberg said. He added: "Given the excitement that you saw in this room today, the announcement by the governor will be just the tool we need to unleash excitement in our donors to support this project." The chancellor said he conferred by telephone with state Department of General Services staff earlier in the day. "The people in Harrisburg assigned to this project are eager to move forward with the design work and the remaining planning as quickly as they can, but the schedule is yet to be determined," Nordenberg said. "Setting the timetable will be up to them." q In boosting the state's share of the convocation center cost, Ridge released the University from a 1993 agreement between then-Gov. Robert Casey and Pitt's then-chancellor, J. Dennis O'Connor.

O'Connor agreed to accept no more than $13 million in state money, rather than the $30 million Casey originally had authorized, in an unsuccessful attempt to get the project moving immediately.

In an interview following yesterday's formal ceremonies, Chancellor Nordenberg said he began lobbying Gov. Ridge two years ago about increasing state funding for the convocation center.

Ridge, in his opening remarks to the crowd, recalled growing up three blocks away from Pitt. (He later moved to Erie.) Ridge noted that his wife earned a master's degree in library science from Pitt and that his brother studied law under Nordenberg. The governor praised the "new and exciting leadership" that Nordenberg has brought to the University.

Renouncing the 1993 agreement between Casey and O'Connor, Ridge said: "At one point in time, there was an old agreement between this University and a previous [state] administration. Now, there's a new University with new leadership, and there's a new [state] administration. And so we decided to scrap that old agreement and enter into a new one." At this, the crowd cheered.

"We celebrate together today a new University of Pittsburgh," Ridge continued, "a University of Pittsburgh that is looking toward the future with a goal of elevating its academic excellence and its place in the Pennsylvania community — not just in the city, the county and the region, but throughout the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. And by helping the University of Pittsburgh achieve its potential, I believe we help Pennsylvania achieve its potential. So this is an education project, it's a jobs project, it's a quality of life project, one of the many new, ambitious and exciting innovations of the Board of Trustees and the new leadership of this great University."

In announcing the release of $100 million in state capital funds over the next five years to Pitt, the governor said: "Historically, the University of Pittsburgh has received, on an average, a little more than $7 million for capital projects from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. I'm pleased to announce that not only are we going to change the amount, we are going to make a commitment that will make it much easier for the University to plan its future as well. For the next five years, I'm pleased to announce, the University can expect $20 million a year rather than $7 million." Provost James Maher, who chaired the Pitt committee that drafted the University's 10-year capital plan, called Ridge's announcement "wonderful news, which says that our plan, at least from the point of state funding, is on track." q Besides providing a new home court for basketball and replacing the Civic Arena as the site of Pitt commencements, the convocation center would enable the University to renovate the Fitzgerald Field House and Trees Hall "in ways that will free up and improve space available for other student athletic and recreational activities," Nordenberg said.

"It will, in short, be the single greatest student-life enhancement in our University's history and also should positively impact the economy, the spirit and the vitality of the Oakland community," Nordenberg said.

"At the very top" of Pitt's capital priority list, along with the convocation center and MPAC, is the development of additional on-campus student housing in Oakland, Nordenberg added — "a matter of great importance both to the University and to our neighbors.

"On these and other projects, we will be working appropriately with others, particularly in city government, to do what is good for the community, as well as for the University," he said.

Oakland Community Council president Marshall Goodwin, who attended yesterday's event, said afterwards that the MPAC and convocation center projects entail "a lot of positives for the community," including an infusion of state funds, creation of an estimated 400 jobs and the planned inclusion of retail space on the first floor of the MPAC building.

"We still have a very big concern about how student housing is going to be addressed, and when it's going to be addressed," Goodwin said. "I was glad to hear the chancellor make mention of it, but I look forward to seeing the [University's student housing] plan. Because we will have to insist that student housing be addressed before a building permit can be issued. That was one of the conditions set by the city Planning Commission" in approving Pitt's master space plan in 1995.

Nordenberg, in an interview, alluded to his sometimes-rocky experience in lobbying the city government (unsuccessfully) to close a section of Bigelow Boulevard to vehicular traffic.

"I've learned some things about moving projects through the city in the past," he said, "so we do intend to work very closely and very carefully with those in the city to make certain that these developments [MPAC and the convocation center] — which are really going to be good for the region, not just for the University of Pittsburgh — move forward in an appropriate way.

"Expanding the on-campus housing opportunities for our students is important to us as well as to the broader community, and I really would not expect that to emerge as a problem." Nordenberg sought to spread around the credit for the breakthrough in state funding, and for the overall improvement in Pitt's public image during his administration.

"I've been fortunate in hiring some people who have been very good at discharging their responsibilities — Steve Pederson and others with the same commitment to the institution, capability for hard work and creative thinking," the chancellor said.

"There is a kind of enthusiasm about Steve that is infectious, and certainly he has a touch with marketing that I think probably will rub off on the entire institution. There are a lot of other people at this University, equally talented in their own ways, who have worked together to improve things in recent years." Asked to assess the University's reputation during the several years prior to his administration, Nordenberg replied: "People were unsure of where we were going and whether this was an institution with which they wanted to be associated. Today, I think, there is a sense that this is a place of quality, that it's on the move, that that's a good thing for the region, and that it's nice to be connected to the University of Pittsburgh." q Near the end of yesterday's event, Vanteego Cummings, captain of the Pitt men's basketball team, presented the governor with a Panthers' game jersey. On the back was Ridge's name, above the number 1.

Student Government Board president Alyson Wallach thanked Ridge "profoundly" on behalf of Pitt students. "When the new convocation center becomes a reality, on this very location where we are assembled today, we will remember that you approved the key funding that made it possible," Wallach said. "Our athletic teams will compete in an arena that will be among the best in [NCAA] Division IA athletics, and we will recall that your vision for the future of Pitt made it possible." Likewise, Pitt students will one day have Ridge to thank for improved intramurals and workout facilities in Trees Hall and the Fitzgerald Field House, she said.

Wallach also commended the governor and Chancellor Nordenberg for their commitment to improving Pitt academic facilities and student housing.


In notifying reporters and many guests on Jan. 20 that Gov. Ridge would visit the Oakland campus the next day to make "a major announcement that will significantly impact the University of Pittsburgh," Pitt's administration emphasized that, "There will be no statements about the substance of this announcement prior to the news conference." Even so, the Post-Gazette and local TV news shows revealed the gist of Ridge's announcement hours before the governor's limousine pulled up to the red carpet leading to the tent site.

Asked how his office and that of Gov. Ridge kept a lid on their negotiations for as long as they did, the chancellor laughed and said: "Well, if I knew how we kept it secret, I probably wouldn't share the secret with you. We just tried to approach this in a very professional way, giving the people in Harrisburg the information they needed to make their decisions, and everything worked out for the best."

— Bruce Steele

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