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We Will Build It!

Thanks to the generosity of philanthropists who truly believe in Ithaca College, a long-dreamt-of athletics and events center is becoming a reality.

Renderings courtesy of Moody-Nolan. Inc.
Architectural firm Moody-Nolan's early renderings of the facility; the iconic tower is part of the natural air-exchange ventilation system.

An athletics and events center, long a dream at Ithaca College, draws closer to reality, thanks to a $5 million gift and a $4 million challenge grant from the Atlan­tic Philanthropies and a $1 million gift from the French American Charitable Trust.

Now, every former student-athlete, coach, or fan who has ever longed for a field house, every graduate and family mem­ber who has ever experienced an out­door Commencement in bad weather, and every person who has ever been crowded out of a lecture or concert featuring a famous visitor can add as much as they can afford to that $10 million—and make the athletics and events center a reality. “These gifts create the momentum we need to go forward,” says trustee Mike Serventi ’72, who is cochairing the volunteer fund-raising committee for the A&E center.

Caroleen Feeney ’86, an actor and member of the College’s board of trustees who is affiliated with both foundations, was instrumental in securing the gifts. What is surprising is that she didn’t play sports here. “I was not an athlete at Ithaca College—I spent my time in the theater,” says Feeney. “But I was a great fan and supporter of the sports program, especially football, and I understand that this project is a vitally important investment in the College’s future. While it will certainly benefit our student-athletes, its impact will be felt by the entire campus community.”

Serventi strongly agrees. Like Feeney, he was not active in sports as an undergraduate. But, also like Feeney, as a trustee he is concerned about the welfare of the College overall, and he regards the proposed center as the “most important building on campus” in terms of the College’s ability to attract and retain the best students. He is delighted by the generosity of Atlantic Philanthropies and the French American Charitable Trust. These grants, he points out, are kick-starting an effort that has been quietly under way for a couple of years, in which he and his fellow volunteers have been talking to others about bringing the A&E center dream to fruition. “A gift of this mag­ni­tude,” says Serventi, “is a real shot in the arm for our fund-raising effort. It’s the cornerstone of the project. And the $4 million challenge provides a huge incentive for our alumni and friends to step up and support the A&E center.”

The Atlantic Philanthropies challenge grant, explains Shelley Semmler, vice president for institutional advancement, requires the College to raise $4 million in new gifts in order to receive the $4 million grant from Atlantic Philanthropies. “The $1.4 million we have already raised cannot be counted toward meeting the challenge,” she says, “but what an opportunity for us! All new gifts will be matched dollar for dollar, so in the end, these wonderful gifts actually amount to $14 million, not $10 million.”

An athletics and events structure has been on the wish list for the College since the 1960s move to South Hill. Dreams aside, the need for such a multipurpose facility has been recognized for some time, and was identified as a high priority when the campus master plan was unveiled in 2003. The Hill Center, the College’s current athletics facility, was built in the 1960s to serve the needs of 2,800 students. It now must serve a student population of 6,400, of whom about 4,050—more than 60 percent—participate in varsity, intramural, or club sports. With such heavy demand for time slots and space, about half of Ithaca College’s NCAA teams and many of its sports clubs have to use facilities rented from Cornell University in off-peak per­iods. Requests for new intramural or club sports have to be turned down because there are no time slots and not enough space to accommodate them.

What the building ultimately includes will depend on the generosity of alumni and other donors.

“Space on campus is so limited that many teams and clubs have to schedule practices at such odd hours as 5:00 a.m. and 11:00 p.m.,” says Ken Kutler, director of intercollegiate athletics and recreational sports. “No doubt, that affects students’ sleep and study patterns. We have to give the coaches and athletes credit for con­tinuing to keep our athletics programs so competitive.” Small wonder, then, that the coaches solidly support the A&E project.  In fact, Paula Miller, coach of the women’s swimming team, and George Valesente ’66, M.S. ’75, coach of the men’s baseball team, have joined the fund-raising effort.

Despite the lack of adequate facilities, Ithaca College athletes have a tremendous record of achievement—15 national cham­p­ionships; 22 individual national champ­ion­ships won by 16 athletes; some 90 ath­letes each semester named to the Empire 8 Presi­dent’s List for academic excellence (requiring a 3.75 cumulative GPA or better). Furthermore, the College’s retention rate is higher among students who participate in athletics than among those who do not. The A&E center will amplify that tradition of excellence and will also serve as a home for the Ithaca College Athletic Hall of Fame, which honors that tradition.

Nowhere is the need for a multi­­­purpose facility more apparent than in the College’s recruiting efforts. Students who are ser­­ious about academics are often serious about athletics as well. And when they are looking at colleges that are academically comparable, their decision may hinge on which one has the best athletics facilities. “We don’t recruit good athletes; we recruit good students who go on to be good athletes,” Mike Serventi says. “And our current facilities definitely affect our ability to recruit the kind of students the College wants. These students won’t choose Ithaca if our facilities don’t at least match what they’re leaving [at their high schools].”

Building the athletics and events center, which will be located in the southeast quad­rant of campus near the Fitness Center, allows the College to make a powerful state­ment about the importance of athletics to the entire campus community. “Ithaca College has a robust athletic heritage,” points out President Peggy R. Williams. “About 60 percent of our students participate in athletics on the intramural or intercollegiate level. Our intercollegiate teams have been extremely successful despite our facilities, which are not equal to the quality of our athletes. Building this athletics and events center makes a strong statement about the importance of athletics at Ithaca College and the contribution our student-athletes make to this community.”

The center also addresses another need—a space large enough to hold all the 8,000-plus people who live and work here, as well as visitors from off campus. Having a facility that will accommodate large lectures, campuswide events such as Commencement and Convocation, concerts, and important sports competitions will reinforce the College’s commitment to inclusiveness.

The fund-raisers and volunteers, along with the College administration, are currently determining what will go into the facility and what needs can be met by the project. The programs and content of the building will be determined by how much money alumni and other donors contribute. As Semmler points out, “The College can no longer afford to construct buildings on borrowed money.”

For this reason, the center is being designed so that it can be built in phases as funds permit. The architectural firm Moody-Nolan, whose projects have included sports and recreation facilities at Ohio State, the University of Oklahoma, and Morehouse College, has been engaged to design it. The firm has met with the people who will make the most use of the facility, who have been invited to contribute to the refinement of the design as it takes shape. Groundbreaking on the project is targeted for 2007, with completion and opening in 2009.

The gifts from Atlantic Philanthropies and the French American Charitable Trust have had a significant impact already, energizing everyone involved. Swenson, who has been working hard to raise funds for the building, greeted the news of the grants with enthusiasm and gratitude: “These gifts give us a tremendous boost. Now everyone knows the center will sooon be a reality.”

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