Proposed improvements in our Recreational Sports facilities

Students at UW–Madison will face a very important question in the ASM spring elections. The ballot for the elections, held March 3-5, will include a referendum question about whether to fund a comprehensive renovation of our campus recreational facilities.

The recreational facilities at UW–Madison play a large role in the university experience for many students. Eighty-three percent of our 42,000 students used these facilities last year. Our Rec Sports facilities had more than 1.7 million visits by users in 2012-13.

But anyone who goes into our recreational sports and fitness facilities will immediately notice that they are old and overcrowded. UW–Madison is lagging behind its peers in this area. We are behind our peers in the Big Ten conference for space devoted to fitness, with just 15,000 square feet. By contrast the leader, Ohio State, has 49,000 square feet.

This lack of space was put in vivid terms during the recent inclement weather. Shortly after it was announced that morning classes would be canceled on Jan. 28 due to extremely cold temperatures and dangerous wind chills, hundreds of students took the opportunity to head to the SERF for a workout. The gym filled up and a line began to form outside. I’m told that there was as much as a seven-minute wait outside in the cold just to get inside of the facility. That shouldn’t happen at a campus of this caliber.

Education isn’t just about the mind. It’s about figuring out how to live one’s life as an effective and productive person, and that means integrating both the mind and the body. Having access to quality recreational facilities and promoting healthy lifestyles have benefits for our students and staff, and the advantages of regular exercise are well-known. In a 2009 survey conducted by CampusLabs, 50 percent of students indicated that participation in campus recreational activities improved their sense of well-being and their overall health. Forty-three percent said participation in recreational activities helped with stress management, 34 percent said it boosted self-confidence, and 31 percent responded it helped them with time management and getting a good night’s sleep. Of course, if you feel good and are healthy, you’ll have a better chance of succeeding in the classroom.

Outstanding recreational facilities also play a role in recruiting the best students to campus. According to CampusLabs, 46 percent of first-year students answered that recreational facilities were very important or moderately important in their choice of college. In addition, the survey found that 40 percent of juniors and seniors felt that recreational facilities were a very important or moderately important factor in their decision to stay enrolled at their college or university.

I am aware of the cost to students of this plan. Currently, student segregated fees for recreational sports are $36.78 per semester. The Big Ten average is $145.06 per semester. If the referendum is approved, the portion of student segregated fees that would go toward Rec Sports would increase by no more than $108 per semester, which would keep the fees slightly below the Big Ten average.

Even if we don’t make major renovations, we still need to address the problems of aging rec facilities. Should the referendum fail, segregated fees will need to be increased to fund needed repairs to keep the SERF and Natatorium operable. The university’s Facilities Planning & Management estimates the Rec Sports portion of seg fees will need to double to address needed repairs such as roof replacements, mechanical and electrical systems upgrades, and lead paint and asbestos abatement. And once those necessary repairs are completed, the campus would still be left with overcrowded facilities.

If you haven’t had a chance to review the Rec Sports Master Plan, I encourage you to click here. The planners have done an impressive job of not only meeting the current needs but also anticipating future needs, with an eye towards sustainability.

Of particular note is that the revamped facilities would include three times the current amount of cardio and strength fitness space at the SERF, and seven times the current amount at the Natatorium. The SERF includes renovations to the existing 50-meter pool, and the Natatorium plans include an eight-lane recreation and instruction pool, an indoor turf field, and ice rink. The plans for the Nat also include an indoor running track — a big bonus given there are no indoor running facilities on the Lakeshore side of campus.

While 57 percent of the $223 million cost will be covered by student fees, the athletics program is providing some funds, state money can be used to move the kinesiology program that is located in the Nat, and I am committed to raising private money to cover the remainder of the cost.  The student fee portion will cover the payments on debt the state allows us to take out to pay for the project, and will continue until these bonds are paid off.  The first of the increased fee payments won’t kick in until the first project is completed, probably around 2016-17.

Students received an email today suggesting that Athletics should pay for more of this project because students supported Athletic Department finances back in the 1990s. It’s my view this is a little like asking the Physics Department to pay for improvements in Chemistry, just because they both study science. Rec Sports facilities are designed for and used primarily by students and this is an appropriate use of student segregated fees.

It’s up to students to decide whether we move forward with this renovation of our recreational facilities. I recognize that attending school at UW-Madison is a major financial undertaking. I believe it is each student’s responsibility to educate his or herself on the issue and vote between March 3-5. I encourage each student to arm themselves with as much information as they can on this vitally important issue before casting a ballot.