USF’s proposed $340 million on-campus football stadium cleared its biggest hurdle yet Tuesday to advance within a few votes of finally becoming reality.
The board of trustees’ finance committee unanimously approved a plan to borrow $200 million for the project at its virtual meeting Tuesday morning. The next step is a vote by the full board at its June 13 meeting.
“The vote today shows that we are investing in athletics in a way to make a significant move forward,” USF president Rhea Law said.
The cost of that move is significant, too. USF plans to spend $140 million up front: $50 million in donations through the USF Foundation, $31 million from the capital improvement trust fund and another $59 million from the sale or expected sale of broadband equipment and licenses.
No state funds or tax dollars are in the proposal.
The Bulls intend to borrow the other $200 million over 20 years with an estimated taxable fixed interest rate of 5.5%. They plan to service that debt — about $17.8 million per year — with new revenues from the stadium like ticket sales, concessions, parking and sponsorships. Attendance and on-field results, then, will be critical in whether USF hits projections that chief financial officer Richard J. Sobieray called conservative.
“We’ve got to put a winning team on the field,” Sobieray said. “Honestly, I think this is going to improve those odds for us to do that.”
The plan features contingencies in case the Bulls continue to struggle or fail to receive an invitation (and bigger payday) from a Power Five conference like the Big 12 or ACC.
USF and the design-build team of Populous and Barton Malow have had more than 40 meetings with students, employees, fans, alumni and others to discuss various non-athletic uses for the 35,000-seat stadium. Income from concerts or conferences, for example, will help pay down the debt.
But those potential uses remain in flux as designers sketch out the necessary features and their corresponding costs. Operating expenses, operating revenues and the final price tag all remain tentative until USF receives a guaranteed maximum price, likely next spring or summer.
“It’s not a zero-risk project,” Sobieray said. “But at the end of the thing, I think what we’ve done here is set ourselves up for success.”
Trustee Jenifer Jasinski Schneider — the Faculty Senate’s president — said her colleagues are wondering about future costs and whether those expenses and debts affect academics.
Sobieray said he understands “the sensitivity behind it,” but USF officials’ emphasis on academics is clear based on the funding boost the school has received from Tallahassee lawmakers over the past two years.
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Law said that after USF formally achieved its goal of becoming a preeminent academic institution in 2018, it could look at expanding its objectives.
“We know that a university is a combination of all things that make it strong,” Law said after the vote. “In this case, the focus is now on our front door, if you will. The thing that provides a lot of notoriety is athletics, and I think the action that was passed today is putting us on the right path.”
The path still has several other potential bumps, including approval by the state university’s Board of Governors at a Aug. 29-30 meeting. The design-build contract allows for USF to walk away without penalty if, for example, the Bulls don’t accept the final price tag.
But the path looks more passable than ever today. Immediately after advancing the financing plan, the committee approved another related project. The proposed site — north of the Bulls’ practice facilities — has recreational fields that must move before construction can begin. The committee agreed to relocate those fields to research areas of campus for seven to 10 years and to come up with a full budget with funding sources to make it happen. The initial estimate is $18 million.
Tuesday’s votes came 20 months after board chairperson Will Weatherford proclaimed the time for an on-campus stadium had finally arrived. Since then, the Bulls made a series of developments, from setting a timeline to move from Raymond James Stadium to campus (in time for the 2026 season) to allocating up to $22 million for the design phase.
The project has progressed enough to where committee chairperson Mike Griffin felt comfortable making a dig at rival UCF about its home, FBC Mortgage Stadium.
“We may not be the quickest, but we do things the right way at USF,” Griffin said just before the vote. “We build things the right way. We will have water fountains in the stadium.”
Unlike the Knights, who lacked hydration stations at their on-campus stadium when it opened in 2007.
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