The Waco Tribune-Herald: Baylor regents give conditional go-ahead to $250M riverfront football stadium

July 20, 2012

Article reprinted with the permission of The Waco Tribune-Herald

By J.B. SMITH
Friday July 20, 2012

WACO, Texas -- Baylor University regents Thursday unanimously approved a $250 million riverfront football stadium they said would boost the prominence of the Bears and their Waco hometown.

During the next two years, the 15-story stadium will rise over the Brazos River at Interstate 35, serving as a "front porch" to the university and the city, Baylor officials said.

"It's not just a question of what it means for the Bears but what it means to Central Texas, the city of Waco and Baylor University," Baylor head football coach Art Briles said. "This has been unequaled in the last 50 years. It's going to completely change the image of all three."

Baylor Stadium

The school's 24-member board of regents approved the project on the condition that the Waco City Council on Aug. 7 approves the contribution of $35 million in public funds on the second of two votes.

The council approved the expenditure of the Tax Increment Financing Zone funds on first reading Tuesday by a unanimous vote, and city officials say the second reading is a formality.

Baylor officials said construction will begin soon after that meeting by the general contractors, Austin Commercial and Flintco, which together built Texas Christian University's recent $164 million stadium renovation project.

Baylor hopes to have the stadium ready for play at the beginning of the 2014 football season. The school now is the only Big 12 Conference member without an on-campus football stadium.

Regent Dary Stone, who was board chairman in the early stages of the stadium discussion last year, said the approval of the stadium caps an incredible past year for Baylor and its athletics programs, including Robert Griffin III's Heisman Trophy win.

"There were a lot of exciting moments this year, but this one is so cool," he said. "This is going to be the most inspirational event in the history of Baylor and Waco. Baylor is really going to have the state-of-the-art football facility in America on what is one of the most strategic pieces of real estate in America, in an aesthetic environment that is almost unparalleled."

New regent chairman Richard Willis said he is amazed at the support the new Baylor Stadium has received in the last six months, starting with an eight-figure donation from former Houston Astros owner and Baylor regent emeritus Drayton McLane.

Baylor StadiumBaylor StadiumBaylor StadiumHe said regents this week talked with and got support for the stadium from all of Baylor's deans.

He said Baylor has never attempted a project of this magnitude, but he noted its success in building 35 facilities during the past decade, including a $100 million science building.

"Looking at all those 35 projects, once we figured we were going to do it -- and especially when Drayton made that initial donation -- I felt real confident we were going to get there," Willis said. "When Baylor decides to do something, we can get it done."

Baylor officials aim to raise $100 million to $120 million in private donations and say they have raised more than 80 percent of that funding goal, though they wouldn't give an exact figure.

Fundraising campaign

With the official regents vote, the university now will launch a broad-based campaign to raise money from all its alumni, not just major donors.

"There's no doubt in my mind we can get the additional $20 to $40 million," McLane said this week. "You're going to see money really come in when people see how good this is going to be."

The stadium not only will help raise the visibility of Waco and Baylor but will help bring the town and university together, said Reagan Ramsower, Baylor vice president for finance and administration.

"It's so important, as we go to where we want to be as an athletic university, that people can embrace us as their team, whether they went to school there or not," he said. "That's an important part of this whole facility that's less direct and less concrete. . . . We want it to be seen as the community venue and Baylor as the community's team."

Baylor is prepared to issue 30-year bonds of $100 million or more to fund the remainder of the project, Ramsower said. Those bonds will be backed by the full faith and credit of Baylor, but the deal is structured so they will be paid off through athletics revenue, not tuition, Ramsower said.

Among the funding sources will be revenue from the Big 12's new television contracts, which will net Baylor $20 million a year starting this fall. That compares with about $12 million in television revenue in the 2011-12 athletic season.

Ramsower said the stadium will not put pressure on Baylor to raise tuition, but after a decade of heavy construction, Baylor's debt capacity will be stretched near its limit.

Ramsower stressed that the project would not happen without the $35 million in TIF funding, which comes from a portion of property tax revenue generated within the downtown and river corridor zone. The money will be paid in yearly installments during the next decade, but Baylor will use that pledged revenue to secure $30 million in financing now.

The TIF revenue will help with projects such as moving sewer and high-wire transmission lines, building a pedestrian bridge across the Brazos and establishing a public boat lagoon.

Ramsower, who is chairman of Waco's new Downtown Development Corp., said the public benefits of the project won him over. He said the stadium as envisioned would be used year-round for sports and entertainment events.

"It's important that the entire community accepts this as the whole community's facility," he said.

Ramsower said Baylor would work with a community organization to oversee bookings at the stadium. He declined to comment on whether Baylor has decided whether to allow alcohol at non-Baylor stadium events, though he said a no-alcohol policy certainly would continue at college games.

93-acre site

Though the 93-acre site itself has no room for retail or hotel development, Ramsower said the stadium will be well-connected by roads, pedestrian walkways and waterways to sites that are ripe for development. And he expects much of the stadium crowd to park in downtown Waco and spend time there before and after games.

The construction of the stadium itself will have an immediate economic impact on Waco, with more than 800 workers expected on-site at the peak of construction, Baylor officials said. The university's goal is that 70 percent of all trades and materials for the project will come from Central Texas.

The timeline for the project might seem daunting, but the university has been preparing for it for months, said Brian Nicholson, associate vice president for facility planning and construction.

Bid packages were sent out to prospective contractors in May, and the designs by the architectural firm Populous were largely complete by June. Oncor, which owns the high-wire transmission lines, already has ordered the materials to relocate the lines, and Baylor already has applied to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for permits to build on a public waterway.

The sewer line relocation, the first step in preparing the site, is designed and ready to go, Nicholson said.

Baylor officials said one of the reasons for fast-tracking the new stadium is that the existing Floyd Casey stadium, built in 1950, suffers from "deferred maintenance."

Before choosing the riverside stadium site, Baylor officials looked at renovating Floyd Casey and received estimates that it could cost $80 million.

Baylor officials have assured the city of Waco that the stadium will be demolished if the university can't find a use for the existing structure. Ramsower said the site has strong redevelopment potential.

"When you assemble that big a set of acreage in a really nice location, I think there are some real opportunities that will really help with economic development in that part of town," he said.