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ISU trustees endorse $11.5M indoor athletic practice facility

AFSCME Protestors lined up.jpg
Colleen Reynolds/WGLT
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Members of AFSCME attended Saturday's Illinois State University Board of Trustees meeting where a representative said, despite a recently settled contract for grad assistants, the negotiated pay increases are not being applied.

The Illinois State University Board of Trustees on Saturday voted unanimously to authorize the Athletics Department to proceed with an $11.5 million indoor domed practice facility.

The inflatable structure will be erected on the current ISU football practice field north of Horton Fieldhouse. ISU Athletics Director Kyle Brennan told trustees at a special meeting, the nearly 79,000-square-foot facility will provide coverage during inclement weather for football, baseball, softball, and soccer.

The board's approval came amid a backdrop of protests from campus union representatives over the lingering pay issue involving graduate assistants and complaints over low wages paid to other ISU employees.

The addition of the indoor practice space will help relieve scheduling pressure for the use of Horton that Brennan said is used every day of the week, from 5 a.m. to midnight.

Currently, Horton Fieldhouse supports academic programming and other activities for the larger campus community, most specifically Campus Recreation, the School of Kinesiology and Recreation within the College of Applied Science and Technology, ROTC, and University High School.

The new practice center will be funded through ticket sales and other money raised through athletic department revenue such as merchandising of athletic wear and gear, along with private fundraising that already has reached $7 million, said Brennan. Trustee Bob Dobski asked about supply chain issues and the possibility those could drive up construction and labor costs.

Dan Stephens, vice president for Finance and Planning, assured Dobski that an outside estimating firm was used to come up with construction costs, and based on estimates received from vendors in the last few weeks, costs are coming in lower than expected. He reported materials are available, but the $11.5 million includes, “a healthy contingency.”

Trustee Rocky Donahue asked for clarification that no public tax money would be spent on the project. Stephens responded by confirming no state money will be used.

“When we have the private funds raised, then we’re ready to go,” Brennan said after the meeting.

Construction won’t begin until funding reaches $8 million (70% of construction costs). Then, trustees will need to authorize financing for the project; that will go to a vote once final bids are received. The project requires a 20-year, $9.8 million bond, combined with $1.4 million in unspent athletic facility bond money from the Redbird Arena seat renovation project, and an additional $165,000 from other athletic department resources.

Brennan said the roughly $350-$400,000 needed to maintain and operate the facility each year will be funded through rentals to the community on nights and weekends when it’s not in use by ISU Athletics.

“We know there’s quite a need for indoor space in the winter time. So for us, it’s a great opportunity to bring the community to campus, because those are future Redbirds, not just athletes. We really want to partner with the community to give an opportunity for everyone who needs it to come and practice, and play and compete in our space,” said Brennan.

He said a feasibility study found the facility would need to be rented 40% of the available time to meet overhead costs, adding he thinks there’s more than enough community demand to meet that threshold.

Workers protest low wages

Before the vote, Trevor Rickerd, a PhD graduate from the School of Biological Sciences, said he opted to skip graduation to attend the meeting as a graduate workers union representative to inform trustees that despite a recently settled contract with grad assistants, the negotiated pay increases are not being applied.

“What I learned recently is that the university decided not to give the appropriate funding to the subsequent departments where these raises were going to be given, in order for those departments to be able to do what they need to do — pay the people at the appropriate rates and hire enough people to actually perform the labor to do the jobs for the university,” he said.

Without funding to support the pay increase for teaching assistants, Rickerd suggested labor issues that are impacting other parts of the university will continue to impact academic areas.

“People will go elsewhere because wages are going higher elsewhere. Workers are realizing their labor is worth something for this university,” Rickerd stressed, while claiming the university’s recently improved credit rating was realized, in part, because of workers being underpaid.

After pointing out the $11.5 million being spent on the athletic facility, Rickered asked trustees, “Where are our priorities right now as a university? Seriously. What is the narrative here?” He added, “Do the right thing.”

The comments followed complaints from other unionized workers, including a local rep from AFSCME Council 31 that represents building service, dining center, grounds and maintenance and other workers on campus who are negotiating a new contract.

Renee Nestler said their wages are hovering slightly above minimum wage and that the university is hemorrhaging employees who provide these essential services.

“Because of staff shortages, workers are finding it difficult to get much needed time off, including for medical appointments,” claimed Nestler. “ISU had every opportunity this year to help workers (with a living wage) and it hasn’t. The message being sent to our members by this kind of behavior is clear. It’s, ‘We don’t value you. We don’t think you are important.’”

Trustees had no public comments in response to comments from the unionized campus employees.

After the meeting, ISU spokesman Eric Jome said, “At any given time throughout the year, we have various bargaining units in negotiations. ISU continues to bargain in good faith. We value the work of all university employees, including graduate workers and others on campus.”

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