FLORENCE — A committee report to University of North Alabama President Ken Kitts encourages the continued exploration of a new football stadium, and stresses that students would want it on campus.
The report from the eight-member University Stadium Work Group states the notion of a new stadium has created a buzz on campus.
In the report's conclusion, the committee noted "the excitement among students, alumni, and community as these discussions have unfolded simply cannot be denied."
"The time is right for this discussion to continue," the conclusion stated, "and we strongly suggest that the university take steps to continue this decision process so that momentum for this project is not lost."
University officials said they are pleased with the report, released to the public last week, but pointed out the movement still is in its infancy. UNA's Board of Trustees has not taken any formal action on the stadium issue.
"This is a very preliminary look at the stadium question," Kitts said Thursday. "This is a process. It's going to be a long process."
Kitts said he has read the document but wants to study it more deeply. He said he plans to make a report, possibly in the form of an open letter, in a couple of weeks.
"I want to take my time," he said of his review of the report. "I'm a methodical guy. I want to digest the report and talk to people on my staff. I want to see what kinds of comments they're getting. All of that will come together and I'll be preparing a more formal response, very likely in the form of an open letter."
UNA officials emphasize the stadium proposal started as a student-driven effort, which is a key element because students likely would be footing part of the bill.
The study comes at a time of a UNA movement called Project 208 — an endeavor to bring additional state funding to the university, which traditionally is in the cellar of state funding compared to other public in-state four-year institutions.
UNA officials want to be certain state officials know they would not use additional state funds to build a stadium. That means other sources, such as private donations from individuals, businesses and groups, would be necessary, as would funding from students.
Simpson Russell, president pro tempore of the university's board of trustees, said he is impressed by the report and by the student support behind getting a stadium. However, he added, it is important for the public to know that this is not something that's going to happen immediately.
"The issue from the trustees' perspective is we want to be very careful because this is all preliminary and this study is simply what it is: it is a university stadium work group," Russell said. "It was initiated by the student body, and I'm confident that the university administration will continue to be supportive of the work of the work group."
However, Russell stressed trustees and university officials must not loose their focus on Project 208.
"That is our main concern at this point. We need to be very careful that we don't in any way be diverted from our primary focus, which is on trying to find every way we can to develop a stronger level of funding from the state," he said.
The Student Government Association commissioned a poll of UNA students in November. Most of the 1,778 who responded indicated they strongly favor an addition to their fees to help pay for a stadium.
The survey also indicates student support is strongly based on having a stadium on campus.
Chase Holcombe, a member of the work group and the 2018-19 SGA president, states in the report that nearly 71 percent of the respondents said they favor an on-campus football/soccer stadium. Some 15 percent said they would not favor it, and approximately 14 percent were indifferent.
Holcombe said he and work group member Grant Gunn, who also is a UNA student, gave presentations to nearly 300 UNA students. Approximately 86 percent said they would be comfortable with a fee increase of $8 per semester hour to help fund the stadium, while 73 percent of the students indicated they would favor a $10 per hour fee increase
The study looked at the norm for stadium ownership, location and capacity among fellow Football Championship Subdivision colleges in Alabama. UNA moved up from Division II to the FCS level last year.
It also looked at risks and advantages of having a stadium, as well as potential funding options, without factoring in the potential for state appropriations.
The three FCS schools in Alabama — Alabama A&M, Alabama State and Jacksonville State — have on-campus stadiums that range in capacity from 21,000 to 26,000, according to the study.
The Top 10 FCS football teams in 2018 have an average stadium capacity of 15,371, with eight of the 10 stadiums being located on campus.
UNA's current home stadium, Braly Stadium, which is owned by Florence City Schools and is home to the Florence High School football team. It has a capacity of 14,500 and is located off campus.
Risks mentioned in the report include potential monetary concerns, such as limitations in borrowing capacity and the costs to students, as well as the possibility that there could be a perception from the public that the city does not need another football stadium. The report also mentioned the impact that moving games from Braly might have on relations between UNA and the city school system.
However, the report adds there are risks in not building a stadium, including the fact that UNA does not own Braly, making it difficult to justify investing funds toward needed modernization. Another such risk involves adverse impacts on the game-day experience due to a lack of amenities, the impact on recruiting, and the lack of a UNA brand.
A new stadium also could provide revenue through other uses such as concerts, and would enhance student engagement, the report states.
The report estimates some 13 to 15 acres would be needed for a stadium and states considerations should include cost, student sentiment, proximity to campus and safety.
The cost estimate for a new stadium mentioned in the report is $25 million to $30 million. The capacity should be 10,000 to 12,000, the report states. It also notes consideration of future growth should play into any decision.
Job well done
"What I really appreciated is how tightly the work group clung to the questions I had presented to them as part of their mandate," Kitts said. "They've completed the assignment given them and they've done it very well, and that is clear from the report."
Kitts said he is pleased with the positive student response and understands they want an on-campus stadium.
"An on-campus stadium has many advantages," he said. "At the same time, the main barrier we're facing is cost. I don't think we can afford to get locked in on any one option, because we're going to be have to be flexible because of the expense and let that be an important part of that process.
"This is a long discussion that we're entering," said the university president. "I want to acknowledge the students' passion and enthusiasm on this issue. We share it, but at the same time I want everyone to understand it's going to take some time to get to the best answer on this question. Once we find the best answer, we'll have to organize the funding."
Kitts said the students' willingness to help with the funding has left an impression.
"The main takeaway there is the students are passionate enough on this topic that they are willing to help," he said. "That's a great message to send. It's a great message for me to receive. At the same time, we want to be careful about putting an undue financial burden on students. I know that's important to the board of trustees."
If a fee increase were implemented, that still would not completely fund the stadium, or even pay the majority of the cost, Kitts said.
He said he also does not want state dollars discussed as a potential funding mechanism.
"We're working very hard at the university to get equity from the state," Kitts said. "We're playing catch-up from Montgomery and as those funds come in, we have needs at our university that are academic needs."
Athletics Director Mark Linder said it is important state officials hear the message that UNA has no plans to use state funds for a stadium.
"We said this up front from the very beginning," Linder said.
He commended the stadium work group on its report.
"In any issue there are pros and there are cons and I thought they were very fair with where the opportunities are and where the challenges are," Linder said. "That information will help us as a university to either continue the conversation, or see what the next step is."
He said he is hearing positive feedback on a proposed stadium.
"There does seem to be a sense of excitement, not only on campus but in the community," Linder said.
“Right now I think we have something out there that is let’s gauge the students’ interest, let’s gauge the public’s interest, let’s gauge the community as a whole and get good feedback,” UNA Head Football Coach Chris Willis said after Saturday’s practice. “It looks like the first round has been pretty good feedback.”
Willis said that because the Lions are in the middle of preseason practice, it’s difficult to think about something that is several years in the future coming to fruition. But he said a new stadium is crucial to the future of having a successful team in football.
“Am I excited about a new stadium, do we need a new stadium? Without a doubt,” Willis said. “It’s one of the two things that is very crucial to being a team that is consistently in the playoffs year in and year out. Being able to play in the playoffs is No. 1 and having a new stadium is No. 2. There’s no doubt we need it.”
A rendering of a stadium at the existing baseball field site was shown during a Student Government Association open forum earlier this year. That site would be enough to meet the committee's point that a 13- to 15-acre location should be considered for the football stadium, Linder said. It also would provide room for expansion. The projected 13 to 15 acres includes parking spaces, he said.
Tim Morgan, chairman of the work group, said the group met numerous times and had productive round-table discussions.
"We didn't vote for anything," Morgan said. "We just discussed and wrote everything down. We tweaked it several times, and everyone was agreeable with what we put down in the report."
He said the committee intentionally did not make specific recommendations. Its members stuck to the task of seeking data and exploring positives and negatives.
However, Morgan said he recognizes there is great interest in the prospect of a stadium.
"If it adds to the campus, in the end it would increase our student enrollment," he said. "I'm hoping the leadership will take this and run with it. The time is right now."
Morgan also acknowledges the emphasis students are placing on having the stadium on campus.
"I think the students are not going to be for it if it's not going to be on campus," he said. "If you don't listen to them, they're not going to want to support it, and you're going to need their support.
"School is more than just taking classes," he said. "Students need to be involved."
Chase Holcombe, the 2018-19 SGA president, said he had sensed a movement for an on-campus stadium long before the surveys were issued.
"The results didn't surprised me because, being part of the student body, I've heard the talk and heard the murmurs for years," Holcombe said. "There is an excitement and willingness from students to put a stadium on campus. This entire process has been student-driven."
In addition to the survey, discussions were held with groups such as the LaGrange Society, SGA and Greek organizations to gain their feedback, he said.
"We tried to hit a diverse group, but we also tried to hit different students we knew would be involved and have connections throughout campus so they could get the word out to other students," Holcombe said.
"We did have two open forums and invite students at large. They weren't quite as large as we had hoped. I believe the reason is the students who normally would come, we had reached already. We also had emails from students so they contacted us that way, as well."
Holcombe said the consensus from the students appears to be that the stadium needs to be on campus. He said the move to Division I has added to that interest.
"Just since I've been on campus as a student, I've seen the excitement grow, and this is the next natural progression," he said.
UNA Trustee Steve Pierce, who is chairman of the board's Campus Life and Athletics Committee, said he is not surprised by the students' desire to have an on-campus stadium.
"I can't blame them," Pierce said. "If I were a student, I'd like to have one, too, right there on campus.
"We need to get away from Braly, if possible. It's just hard for a student to be excited about going into Braly and knowing it's a high school football stadium. I'm speaking from a students' perspective. It's what I've heard.
"We need to look at the wishes of the students and get out in the community and see if there is interest in some businesses to help fund it, if it is deemed to be feasible," Pierce said.
He said UNA's first season in Division I took fans to visiting football games at locations of Division I on-campus stadiums.
"People got a little bit of a taste of that last year when they went to places and saw that," Pierce said. "They went to the game at Alabama A&M, and some of those people started tailgating on Thursday night."
If the stadium is moved to the existing baseball field, the baseball field must first be relocated. There is talk about moving the stadium next to the existing softball and beach volleyball fields and making that a spring sports facility.
"There's a lot of moving pieces to this," Pierce said. "Now that this report is ready, I think it gives us a platform to meet and discuss this in a very serious nature.
"Now that this is out and has come back from this work group, it's time for us to sit down and look at the feasibility of this and see what we can and can't do."