A South Carolina legislative panel has given its blessing for Coastal Carolina University to proceed with work on a new football stadium, but only if the school raises an extra $1.9 million to put in more seats.
Coastal still needs one more level of state approval before it can move forward on a $31.8 million project to upgrade Brooks Stadium. The school says the upgrades are necessary because Coastal’s football program is moving up to the highest division of college sports. The NCAA, which regulates college athletics, requires at least 15,000 fans per game for teams in its Football Bowl Subdivision. However, Brooks Stadium currently only seats slightly more than 9,200 spectators.
Approval was needed from the Joint Bond Review Committee (JBRC) because most of the construction costs will be funded through borrowing via revenue bonds. School leaders will also need the blessing of the State Fiscal Accountability Authority, which will likely consider the project later this month.
The school had initially sought approval for a smaller $29.9 million renovation to bring the stadium’s capacity to 19,600 seats. That would have been below the 20,000-seat minimum its new conference the Sun Belt Conference had required. College president David DeCenzo said the lower amount was needed because South Carolina’s higher education commission had previously asked the school to keep its costs below $30 million.
However, legislators on the committee questioned whether Coastal was hurting itself by intentionally building below the conference minimums.
“Are you going to be kicked out of the Sun Belt if you don’t have those seats?” Chairman Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, asked DeCenzo.
“They have not indicated they would throw us out,” DeCenzo answered. “But they have certainly indicated what their preferences are.”
Leatherman and others on the committee said they would allow the school to add the additional seats on the front end, but were not willing to okay a larger borrowing request. Instead, they asked the school to pay for the additional $1.9 million price tag through private sources.
“You’re losing revenue by not having those seats,” State Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, said. “You’re adding to the costs by coming back later. It’s always cheaper to do it during construction than later.”
A more ambitious $38 million project was initially rejected by the state’s Commission on Higher Education, which thought the total too high. The school came back with a scaled-down $29.9 million plan in May. But the commission again rejected it, with members saying they were concerned about a lack of private funds (roughly $2 million).
However, legislators took the unusual step of allowing the project to bypass the higher education commission and go straight to the JBRC for approval. Gov. Nikki Haley vetoed that budget language in June, but lawmakers in the House and Senate overrode her.
The SFAA will likely take up the project at its Aug. 23 meeting. The debate could be sharper then, however, as Haley chairs the panel.
Coastal hopes to finish the renovations by 2019.