EXCLUSIVE: USC plans $125 million Coliseum renovation, asks state for money to hold line on tuition hikes

ashain@thestate.comNovember 11, 2013 

The University of South Carolina plans to renovate the Carolina Coliseum in Columbia. The 45-year-old building is home to classrooms and student activities offices.


  • Reusing the Coliseum Uses USC proposes for a renovated facility:

    •  Added classroom and lab space

    •  A “one-stop shop” for student services — including class registration, tuition payments, financial aid, admissions and tutoring

    •  Provide added space for student activities

    •  Give the men’s and women’s basketball teams their own practice courts

The University of South Carolina plans to renovate the 45-year-old Carolina Coliseum to create a western hub for its expanding campus.

Plans call for turning the 12,000-seat arena into classrooms and labs, a one-stop shop of student services, an adjunct student union and a practice facility for the Gamecock basketball teams.

USC has built a recreation center, Greek housing, arena and one of its two major research campus buildings on the west side of Assembly Street over the past decade. In the spring, the school will finish a $106.5 million business school building, next to the Coliseum, and plans to open a six-story, 919-bed apartment complex, behind the coliseum, in 2015.

The estimated $125 million Coliseum renovation was included in the university’s 2014-15 budget request to Gov. Nikki Haley. But the school says it is not asking for the money next year.

“We’re just at a level of saying that it is a project that we have begun thinking about,” USC president Harris Pastides said Monday.

USC is conducting a feasibility study about reusing the Coliseum and does not know when it will ask for money from the General Assembly, spokesman Wes Hickman said. The last academic program, now operating in the arena’s basement, is scheduled to move from the site in 2019.

The immediate reaction to USC’s proposal from a key budget-writing legislator was not positive.

House Ways and Means chairman Brian White, R-Anderson, said he does not think the state has the money for the renovation.

“That is more than the capital reserve fund,” White said referring to the state’s $112.7 million rainy-day account. “One university, one project more than the whole capital reserve fund? Really? My answer to that is, ‘No.’ ”

The state’s flagship university does want $7 million more from the Legislature next year to pick up the full cost of employee pay and health insurance increases, and higher utility rates. The school now receives less than half of the state money needed to cover increasing employee costs, Hickman said.

The $7 million equals the amount generated from recent 3 percent tuition increases, Hickman said.

In exchange, USC would call a “tuition time out,” freezing the price tag to attend the school. In-state tuition and fees cost $10,816 this year, up about 30 percent since 2007.

In his State of the University speech in September, Pastides offered to freeze tuition for three years, starting in 2014-15, in exchange for full state funding of rising costs associated with running the 31,000-student school. He also agreed to not make any special spending requests, which means the school might not ask for the money to renovate the Coliseum until 2017-18.

Pastides said he has received positive response from lawmakers but no assurances.

State Rep. Chip Limehouse, a Charleston Republican who heads the S.C. House’s higher education budget subcommittee, said he is uncomfortable with swapping a tuition freeze for more funding.

“That sounds like growing government to me,” he said. “I’m not certain we will have $7 million to give anybody.”

USC and other S.C. public colleges have asked lawmakers to develop a new method of allocating state money to schools that would be based on their academic and financial performance. College funding now is based on a formula with schools sharing a specific percentage of state cash.

Renovating the Carolina Coliseum could add 485,000 square feet of classroom, office and athletics space — the size of eight football fields, according to the budget request sent to Haley’s office.

According to budget documents, the Coliseum renovation would:

•  Go toward addressing the shortage of 100,000 square feet of needed classroom and lab space. USC’s enrollment has increased by 6,000 students over the past decade, creating the need for more space, the university says.

•  Become what the school calls a “one-stop shop” for student services — including offices for class registration, tuition payments, financial aid, admissions and tutoring. Those services now are spread across USC’s campus.

•  Provide space for student activities that have no room at the Russell House student union.

•  Give the Gamecocks basketball teams their own practice courts. The renovation would include two new courts — one each for the men’s and women’s teams. The teams currently share a court, next to the Coliseum, that is used also by the school’s volleyball team. USC would put on hold plans to build a basketball practice facility on its south campus.

Those plans could change after the school receives the feasibility study about reusing the Coliseum, Hickman said.

The Coliseum was built in 1968 for $8.5 million, the equivalent of $57 million today. The arena spurred the heyday of USC basketball under legendary coach Frank McGuire, who led the Gamecocks to four NCAA tournament appearances.

For years, the building also was the major concert hall in Columbia, hosting Elvis Presley, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John and the Bee Gees.

The basement of the Coliseum holds some of the largest academic space on USC’s Columbia campus, housing the colleges of Mass Communications and Information Studies, and Hospitality, Retail and Sports Management.

However, both schools, with 3,600 students, are slated to move out.

Mass Communications is scheduled to move to the Health Sciences Building on Sumter Street, near the Horseshoe, in 2015.

The hospitality college is earmarked to take over the building that now houses USC’s law school on Main Street in 2019.

The law school is getting a new building in 2016.

Staff writer Adam Beam contributed.

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