South Carolina’s top financial accountability panel gave its okay Tuesday for Coastal Carolina University to proceed with work on $31.8 million in upgrades to its football stadium, over the pronounced objections of Gov. Nikki Haley.
The State Fiscal Accountability Authority (SFAA) approved the renovations to Brooks Stadium in a tight 3-2 vote Tuesday. 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.
But Haley opposed the expansion, noting the state Commission on Higher Education had rejected it as too expensive on four different occasions before legislators earlier this year allowed it to advance without the commission’s approval. The governor is one of the SFAA’s five votes. She and Treasurer Curtis Loftis were the two “no” votes.
“We are talking about a stadium, versus classrooms and books,” Haley said before the vote. “When you’re talking about a stadium that we… don’t think they will be able to sustain and afford.”
The legislative Joint Bond Review Committee (JBRC) three weeks ago gave its own approval to the stadium, but only on the condition that Coastal add enough seats to put it above the 20,000-seat minimum for its new Sun Belt Conference. University planners had previously dropped below that minimum to save money. However, the JBRC required the additional $1.9 million be funded through private contributions.
Under the proposal approved Tuesday, $22.9 million of the stadium’s costs would be borrowed through bonds, $5 million through institutional and state funds and $3.9 million in donations.
Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom joined the SFAA’s two legislators in approving the project. He argued Coastal Carolina under President David DeCenzo has shown it is a good steward of taxpayer and students tuition money.
“This is a university that I believe is unique among all others in South Carolina in how it has grown itself,” he said, noting the school had already reduced its initial $38 million plan at the request of the Commission on Higher Education.
But Haley insisted the legislature was setting a precedent by allowing colleges to simply go around the higher education commission if their borrowing requests are rejected in the future. But House budget chairman Brian White and Senate Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman say the move is a special exception because Coastal Carolina is moving into the new Sun Belt Conference this year.
Coastal officials hope to finish with the upgrades in 2019.