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October 26, 1995

Connolly vows to press state for more convocation center funds

Board of Trustees Chairperson J. Wray Connolly said this week that Pitt will continue seeking a total of $30 million in state money for a proposed convocation center, despite the fact that University and state officials signed an agreement in 1993 limiting Harrisburg's share of the project to $13 million.

The agreement, signed at a time when Pitt expected the project to cost $35 million, committed the University to match the Commonwealth's $13 million with $22 million of its own.

Pitt administrators now expect the convocation center will cost at least $52 million.

In 1988, the Pennsylvania General Assembly approved, in principle, $30 million for the project but did not actually release funds for it. Five years later, former Chancellor J. Dennis O'Connor approved the deal to accept $13 million from the state — and, in effect, sign away the remaining $17 million — based on the idea that a guarantee of receiving nearly half the funds was better than holding out for a full $30 million appropriation that might never come.

At the time, too, Pitt officials were expecting to launch a major capital campaign by the mid-1990s.

According to Connolly, no one told him or other trustees about the 1993 agreement signing away $17 million. Nor was Interim Chancellor Mark Nordenberg aware of it when he, Connolly and other Pitt officials met recently with Gov. Tom Ridge to ask for the additional $17 million for the convocation center, Connolly said.

At the Oct. 19 board meeting, Connolly said revelations of the 1993 agreement made him feel embarrassed for the University as well as for "all the people who have been trying to work diligently to get this $30 million in meetings with the governor and his administration.

"This is exactly the kind of problem Mark [Nordenberg] and I are determined to eradicate from this university. All I can say is we are going to do whatever has to be done to keep this kind of situation from occurring in the future." Connolly said he would try to find out who from Pitt knew about the deal at the time it was signed.

The actual 1993 agreement was signed by L. Thomas Hussey, associate vice chancellor for Facilities Management, and Rich Holmes, a University general counsel. Hussey told the University Times: "My responsibilities were confined to fulfilling the senior administration's desires and directions in this matter. Facilities Management is Pitt's primary contact with the Department of General Services of the Commonwealth." Hussey declined further comment.

Other administrators whom the University Times tried to interview for this story were either unavailable for comment or referred the Times to a written statement issued by the administration. See chronology for excerpts.

Thomas Anderson and James DeAngelis, co-chairpersons of the University Senate plant utilization and planning (PUP) committee, said Pitt administrators briefed PUP in advance about the fall 1992 deal in which the state agreed to provide $69.1 million, and Pitt agreed to come up with $70.6 in matching funds, for 10 University building and renovation projects under the auspices of the state's Operation Jump Start program.

In separate interviews, Anderson and DeAngelis said they remembered being told that the Commonwealth would contribute $13 million toward the convocation center, with Pitt providing $22 million. But the administration never told PUP that Pitt was signing away money originally authorized for those projects, Anderson and DeAngelis agreed.

According to Pitt's administration, the 1993 agreement allows for Pitt and the governor's office to agree to amend it or replace it with a new agreement. Spokespersons for Gov. Tom Ridge said it's unlikely the governor will agree to change the agreement, but Connolly said he and other Pitt officials will continue pressing the state for an additional $17 million.

"I see the convocation center as the centerpiece for a capital campaign that I'd like to see us launch in the not too distant future," Connolly said. "This center will be vital to improving our recreational facilities." Besides providing new recreational areas, the convocation center as currently planned would include a 12,500-seat arena for men's and women's basketball and academic events such as commencement. The center would link Pitt Stadium with Fitzgerald Field House.

— Bruce Steele

Filed under: Feature,Volume 28 Issue 5

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