In July 2015, two top officials at N.C. State expressed doubts about an athletic department plan to build a $15 million dormitory for men’s and women’s basketball players that would house just 63 students.
At more than $150,000 per bed based on the estimated $10 million in construction costs, the average costs per student for the small, four-story “boutique” dorm, called Case Commons, would be as much as three times higher than the average of between $50,000 and $70,000 per bed for other N.C. State dorms. Most basketball players would have single rooms. More than half of the residents would by NCAA rule be non-athletes.
N.C. State chancellor Randy Woodson thought there were other projects that held a higher priority, according to emails obtained by The News & Observer. The school’s chief financial officer at the time, Charles Leffler questioned the high cost and lack of efficiency of such a small project, he recently said in an interview.
“I’ve told Debbie (Yow) that there are many things I would see benefiting from the extra revenue associated with seating rights, but she seems to think this is hugely important for athletics, and particularly basketball,” Woodson wrote in an email on July 29, 2015 to Leffler. “Therefore, I remain on board.”
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These and other emails obtained through a public records request revealed that the proposed dorm, pushed hard by the athletic department, caused concerns among top university administrators who were reluctant to spend so much money on so few students. But N.C. State athletic director Debbie Yow, who toured similar facilities built at campuses that housed blue-chip basketball programs, saw this as a way to help restore the luster to a struggling program in one of the nation’s toughest conferences.
The dorm, despite misgivings from the administration, was given the green light in August 2015. It was supposed to have broken ground last spring, but disagreements over construction costs have stalled the project. The school says it also wanted input from new basketball coach Kevin Keatts. It is now targeted to be completed in August 2019, a month after Yow is scheduled to retire.
Woodson said in a recent interview that he would not have approved the project if students had to foot the bill. The dorm, to be located near the Case Academic Center close to classrooms in the heart of the campus, is to be financed through private dollars raised by the athletic booster club. N.C. State spokesman Fred Demarest said recently the fund-raising for the project – estimated to cost $15 million with $10 million of that going to construction – is “ongoing.”
Costs were a concern to Leffler, the CFO, who wrote to Woodson in 2015 that he agreed the project could leave future needs unmet, given the “unknown costs athletics will face going forward.”
“Building this small of a residence hall is hard to justify on its own merits and I have told Debbie (Yow) that,” Leffler replied.
Leffler, who retired in September 2015, said in a phone interview that he thought it would have been more efficient to build Case Commons with more beds.
“You build 1,000 beds, then it’s cheaper per bed than building 100,” Leffler said. “I was only speaking from a cost efficiency standpoint. Not from a programmatic standpoint.”
The current plan for Case Commons includes space for 65 students, an increase from the original 63. Of the 65, 30 will be basketball players, and 35 will be non-athletes.
Yow said the idea for the project emerged after an agent-related recruiting violation in 2011 caused her to rethink security arrangements for athletes. She also said she believed housing basketball players in a dedicated facility such as Case Commons could help recruiting by locating the athletes close to the school’s academic support network.
“Case Commons will be strategically located adjacent to Case Academic Center where our academic support program for student-athletes is located and tutor sessions occur, as well as Case Dining Hall, where many of our student-athletes eat the majority of their meals,” Yow wrote in an email to The News & Observer. “It is also in the heart of campus near classrooms.”
Original plans for Case Commons included space for a theater and a courtyard, according to documents obtained through a public records request that detailed early proposals for the project.
The theater was eliminated in later versions of the plan for cost reasons. The square footage of the building has also been reduced.
The university’s proposal for the small, “boutique” dorm is one of many such athletically-linked projects that have accompanied a sports building boom at universities in the Triangle and across the country as colleges seek new ways to bolster sports programs and recruit the best high school athletes.
Duke and UNC do not have boutique athletic dorms. Spokesmen for both universities say they believe student-athletes are better served when spread out among the general student body.
There have been a number of multimillion-dollar renovations and plans for new projects completed in the Triangle schools in recent years.
N.C. State built a $17.2 million indoor practice facility for football that started construction in 2014. The school also completed a $35 million renovation of Reynolds Coliseum, the former home of the men’s basketball team, last year.
UNC’s plan to replace its soccer/lacrosse field and build the football team a bigger practice complex will cost about $67 million. In 2011, the school spent $70 million on an expansion to Kenan Stadium, adding 3,000 more seats, 20 corporate suites and an academic support center for athletes.
Duke recently completed a $100 million renovation to Wallace Wade Stadium that started in 2014.
Other universities have built dorms designed for athletes.
The University of Kentucky’s $7.9 million dorm, Wildcats Coal Lodge, houses just 32 students, nearly half basketball players. It is equipped with personal chefs, a dining room, a game room, and each athlete has his own bedroom.
The University of Kansas’ $12 million dorm, McCarthy Hall, houses 38 students, also nearly half basketball players, and is equipped with a half-court indoor gym, a barber shop, a game room, a media room and a multipurpose room.
Yow toured both dormitories in 2015.
Since 1996, NCAA rules have specified that residence halls have to be occupied by at least 51 percent non-athletes. The change represented an attempt to do away with special perks in athletic dorms that were not available to other students.
Back to square one
N.C. State, through a spokesperson, said in July that the dorm project was delayed to give new basketball coach Kevin Keatts, who was hired in March, an opportunity to provide input.
“It’s a great thing for me because obviously I wasn’t a part any of the plans before,” Keatts said in a press conference in July. “But it is good for me to have an opportunity to add some things into it.”
But the contractor who won the bid to build Case Commons says the project was halted after the firm was dismissed from the project because of a disagreement with the university over costs.
“I think they have to figure out what they really need in the project and what they might not need to keep,” Scott Wynne, senior estimator at the T.A. Loving Company, said.
N.C. State hired Loving to build the project in February 2016. But when the contractor presented the estimated costs for N.C. State’s preferences for amenities to the subcontractors, the bids came in “significantly” over budget, Wynne said.
Woodson said the bids came in nearly $3 million over budget.
After the two sides failed to reach an agreement, N.C. State dropped Loving. N.C. State has since hired Barnhill Company.
“One of the challenges with the T.A. Loving contract is that we didn’t have sufficient bids for all the subcontractors,” Woodson said. “In just my fiduciary responsibilities, I’m never going to go through with a project that doesn’t have sufficient bidders.”
It is unclear how the proposed amenities for N.C. State’s dorm have changed during the course of developing the project. The News & Observer made a request for the dorm’s latest designs, but the documents do not detail the dorm’s current planned amenities.
Woodson said he wasn’t sure what the current designs look like and that the project is still in flux.
“We’re in the process of trying to figure how to build this thing and do it for a reasonable amount of money,” Woodson said.
Staff writer Chip Alexander contributed to this report