In June 2015, Fresno State unveiled plans to renovate Bulldog Stadium, its aging football venue, with a $60 million project that would add tunnels and a cross-aisle to ease access into and around the seating bowl and a three-level tower with new suites, a stadium club and a press box.
The university and athletic department worked that plan for more than two years, but in January abruptly shifted focus to improvements to the Duncan Building and student-athlete village, which includes the Ricchiuti Academic Center, Meyers Family Sports Medicine Center, and a strength and conditioning center.
Bulldogs fans who anticipated walking into a renovated stadium with upgrades to restroom facilities and concessions stands would just have to wait.
The renovation, which was to be completed in time for a 2019 season opener, had its challenges. Cracking on the east side of the stadium threatened to delay the start of construction by a year or more and add more than $30 million to the cost of the project. Fundraising had slowed. Fresno State had yet to secure stadium naming rights, a critical piece to funding the renovation. Former athletics director Jim Bartko, who launched the project, resigned in November 2017, citing personal reasons.
It also could be argued that the proposed west-side tower, all gleaming glass and metal, was overly ambitious.
But with 21 athletic programs to support, a renovated stadium could have generated needed revenue to maintain a competitive level in the Mountain West Conference not just in football, but also basketball, volleyball, women's lacrosse.
An early prospectus on the project included naming rights opportunities for the tower ($2.5 million), stadium club ($1 million), south and north plaza entrances ($1 million), concourse quadrants, the suite level, sports bar and press area ($500,000).
So why the switch? And what is next for Fresno State and its 38-year-old football stadium, and for Bulldogs fans?
The Bee sat down over breakfast with university President Joseph Castro to dig for answers and into eggs, potatoes and toast.
The bottom line, Castro said: The stadium plan didn't pencil out.
Question: Let's start with the good news. There is an answer to the cracking on the east side of the stadium, and it is very positive news. That could have been a $30 million to $40 million hit, but word is it can be fixed for a fraction of that?
Answer: We were obviously very concerned about the cracking that we were seeing. There was the irrigation line that broke (under Section 38) that actually was a pretty young line. It was 10 or 15 years old. That was a separate problem — those two things were not connected.
But the good news is we are not going to have to replace the east side. We had been looking at different scenarios, and the worst-case scenario would have been to have to completely replace it. That would have been $30 million or more. We've determined with some different engineering firms that helped us that we will not have to replace it. It's structurally sound, but it needs to be re-caulked. There will be a section of stairs that will need to be rebuilt and then other sections where we're going to strengthen them so over the long haul we do not have further deterioration. We're going to fix the drainage — that was the actual problem. Storm drainage water was coming underneath and creating a lot of problems. We're going to fix that fundamental problem.
I think with the caulking and rebuilding we'll be in good shape. That's much less than $30 million. At this point it's probably in the single millions.
Q: With that, you're now able to move ahead with the plan that came out in January, which I'm sure caught a lot of people off guard, scrapping the renovation plan that had been in the works for more than two years and taking on more within the Duncan Building and student-athlete village?
A: The plan now to modernize the stadium is really to focus on fixing that east side and dealing with the deferred maintenance that we have in the stadium like the restrooms and the concessions stands, and we have some ADA issues that we want to take on to make it easier for accessibility throughout the stadium. We will replace the seating, and it will improve the fan experience.
I look at it as a home renovation project. The structure of the home will stay the same, Bulldog Stadium. But it will feel much better, have a more modern look and be more comfortable for our fans, and we want fans of all ages to come and enjoy Bulldog football.
Q: At the time, it was an interesting decision. On one hand, you're now trying to support 21 sports programs, so more space and facilities improvements would be a necessity. On the other, you're now trying to support 21 sports programs, so you need to generate more revenue and that could be done through a renovated stadium. Can you take me through the decision to move in this new direction?
A: Well, the vision that we had earlier … had a lot of potential. It was a bigger vision. But when we looked at the economics around it, we just couldn't make it work. It would have required significant private dollars, more than we had committed at the time, and more financing by the university, and we just couldn't make the economics of that vision work.
This vision is more about dealing with the practical issues that we have in the stadium and fixing those, addressing those. Then, the student-athletes village is really about dealing with the experience that our student-athletes, our coaches and our staff have every day, to make that better. There will be better spaces for them to work and to learn, better spaces for the coaches and staff, better conditioning spaces. All of that is wrapped into one vision that will tie into the Ricchiuti Center and the Meyers Center and will make that part of the complex much better for student-athletes, and it will be all of our student-athletes as opposed to a certain number of them.
I think it will be a powerful change for our student-athletes. I think it will help with our recruiting, because they will be able to see how supportive we are not just on game day but every day with our nutrition, our academic support and just having the facilities that they need to be successful.
Q: The economic part of the renovation, it was at $60 million?
A: It was $60 million and even higher for a while. It was up to $80 (million) at the beginning and even at $60 (million) it was not penciling out. It would have required an enormous financial structuring from the campus to make it work and I felt like that was too risky for the university.
I think that vision had a lot of potential, but it was just more costly than we could afford and I didn't want to put the university at risk. We've seen other universities that have taken such risks and it could be really problematic for everybody. I thought the more prudent course was to do what we really need to do to preserve that stadium and make it better, and for that to align for our financial situation so that it was affordable. I think this vision is affordable. It still will require significant resources, but I think it's more in line with our financial realities.
For me it's all about balance and priorities, given that we have a lot of academic needs that must be addressed and athletic needs that have to be addressed.
Q: How does that work, then, funding the work inside the stadium and in the student-athlete village?
With the Bulldog Stadium modernization, we're going to fund that through the campus and finance that over a period of time. We think that will be $45 million roughly. We're still scrubbing that cost estimate, but it probably will be in that ballpark and that would be affordable for us to finance over a period of time.
The Duncan Building and restructuring that complex. the village, we think that will be in the $20 million range and that would be privately supported. ... There will be some different timelines that we will be able to share in the coming weeks as we know more, but those two projects will be working in tandem and increase the overall experience for everybody and make it much more positive.
Q: What are the priorities in updating the stadium?
A: The restrooms, concessions stands, the path of travel around the stadium. We're going to improve all that. The seating, I know some people have been concerned about the seating so we're going to replace that as well. We'll improve some of the utility pieces — the electrical, that sort of thing. We'll improve the existing skyboxes so the experience for our friends in those boxes will be better, as well. Then over time we'll look at other ways to enhance the stadium.
This is not going to be the last project for Bulldog Stadium. This is the next project. We'll continue to assess what will be needed in the future.
Q: In improving access, does that still include adding tunnels into the seating bowl?
We certainly want to explore what the costs will be for that, but I'm not sure that it could be realized in the $45 million.
As I understand it they value-engineered that about at the end of the project, which I get. They were trying to meet a budget, as well. But to do it now would be really costly.
Q: The additional suites in the west tower?
A: There might be a time in the future where we could revisit new skyboxes, but we couldn't pencil those out economically and that was why we decided that was not going to be a high priority right now. We could have had to finance them out over 20 or 30 years and once we got out to years nine, 10, it got really concerning.
As president, I didn't want to place undue risk on future generations at Fresno State. We'll revisit that later, but it will have to pencil out for us to do it and maybe later it will. For now, it doesn't. That's why we're going to focus on these areas. Maybe at another time in the future, but meanwhile we can't wait on these other things that we've talked about. It's a dire situation and we want to make sure we address these issues as quickly as we can.
It's consistent with how the university is addressing classroom issues, the laboratory issues: as aggressively as we can. I just met with the Academic Senate the other day and went over all of the capital improvement that we've made this year and we're going to make because it's important. They want to know, "Is my classroom that I'm teaching in going to get better?" Absolutely, and it's the same with the stadium.
Q: Aecom, which worked the original renovation, has been involved either with the stadium or student-athlete village or both. What is the task there?
A: We're going to move to a design-build phase and we'll invite firms to participate in that. Aecom will be able to compete for it, but so will other companies. They've helped us in this initial assessment, but I think now we're going to go back out for bid and give companies including them (the chance) to compete for it, and then we'll select a company. Aecom has been helping us with the student-athlete village and they're the ones that will come up with the preliminary plans that we'll see in the next few weeks.
Q: Duncan and the student-athlete village, $20 million in investment there could set you apart from some Mountain West Conference programs just working within and around that footprint.
A: I think it can. We have great coaches and a great university academically. The coaches tell me academically it's powerful for them when they go into living rooms and kitchens and say, "We're ranked 17th in the country." That is really selling us, but I think having this concept where we're addressing their everyday needs when they first walk in, I think that's going to be very powerful in terms of recruiting the most talented student-athletes to Fresno State, especially the ones that might be inclined to be close to home, but see our facilities are not quite what they see elsewhere.
I think we'll be able to compete more effectively for them as well and I'd love to see more of our local student-athletes stay home because I think that will also generate more support from the community. We've seen that with (quarterback) Marcus McMaryion and I see other examples in our men's and women's sports.
Q: Take me through a timeline. Aecom will have something back with the next few weeks?
A: On the student-athlete village, we're supposed to get some preliminary master plan information from them by the end of April. I think after that will be some further conversations where we refine the vision, and then we would be talking with our friends to see what they are willing to support. There is going to be that part of the process as well. But I think we'll have a sense of what the framework will be in the next few weeks, and that will be based on the input of our student-athletes and our coaches.
Q: How confident are you in the fundraising for that end of the project? On the Bulldog Stadium renovation I believe there was around $18 million in pledges and about $4 million in real money.
A: Based on the conversations we've had already, I think there's a lot of interest in this project. Our friends obviously want to see more details and we're going to talk with them as soon as we have the details. But I'm cautiously optimistic that we can raise that $20 million, and if the needs are greater than that we would ask our friends if they would be willing to do a little more. I just don't have a firm number yet. We won't have that for a little while and obviously the longer we wait the higher it could be, so we want this project to get done as quickly as we can because it is an urgent need that we have.
It will run parallel with the other project. My hope is once we get the vision realized in terms of the specifics and get our friends together we could probably get it done within a few years. It can move pretty quickly. We don't have a specific timeline yet. It will depend on the fundraising, but once we have the dollars we can move pretty quickly.
Q: But none of that money or pledges secured for the original stadium renovation project rolls into this new vision?
A: We have talked with the donors who committed to the former vision and several of them have said to us that they would be open to helping with the student-athlete village. We're hopeful that will happen. I don't think all of them will do that, but some of them will and I'm hoping other people will want to step up and get involved.
A lot of those dollars that were counted were connected to the skybox project and with that not happening some people might say, "I don't want to do this after all."' I get that.
I think it's fair to say there are a few disappointed friends out there. I've talked with them. I get it. They've said to me, "You should build a whole new stadium. You should do this bigger thing." I understand that, but economically it doesn't pencil out and I've said that to them. We've had some good back-and-forth on it.
Q: I know when you first started you took a tour of the stadium and were told that you weren't even halfway through it when you stopped everyone and asked, "How do we fix this?"
A: It definitely is a need. It really has become one of the most significant parts of my presidency and I didn't expect this when I went through the interview process. The whole physical infrastructure of the campus is bring rebuilt right now. I didn't know during that process how dire the situation was. We had to replace the whole electrical infrastructure for the campus right when I arrived because the electricity was going out.
The other big project that we're working on right now is the heating and cooling for the whole campus. That's about 20 years beyond its useful life and we have to switch that out as well. The state is going to provide about $30 million for that, but it's a $120 million or $130 million project so we have to finance a significant portion of it over time. We have classrooms that need to be redone. The campus is almost 70 years old so a lot of those original buildings are in need of at least renovation if not replacement.
It will require a significant investment. The classrooms, all of that, is an investment of our state funds. There's the new student union, which will be the students paying for that. The new housing, which will be a public-private partnership. All of those things are going on as we improve the athletic venues.
It's an exciting challenge … makes it an adventure. But I feel good about where we're at and I think our trajectory is really good. It just requires me to be patient about what can be done over what period and to not overdo it financially and being very thoughtful about that.