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With help of $3M gift, University of Utah will build student center

Published September 12, 2012 9:54 am

Campus life • Students have been lobbying for a decade for the recreation and social facility.
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For at least five years before Neela Pack came to the University of Utah as a freshman, students had been lobbying for a student life center worthy of a flagship institution. They even voted to increase student fees to finance such a facility.

As student-body president and a university trustee last year, Pack embraced the stalled campaign and befriended a fellow trustee who could make things happen. Lisa Eccles could hardly attend a Pac-12 away football game without Pack calling her up with a request for her to tour the opposing school's facilities.

A decade of student activism achieved its mission on Tuesday when the family foundation Eccles leads announced it was giving $3 million to help build a massive recreation complex that officials say will improve the U.'s undergraduate experience and make the Salt Lake City campus a livelier place.

Barbara Snyder, the U.'s long-serving vice president for student affairs, shed tears at Tuesday's trustees meeting as President David Pershing promised to have the 172,000-square-foot building finished in 2014.

The George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation "has done so much to help us. They have been committed to our students. This is the perfect gift to illustrate that commitment," Pershing said. "This will allow us to have a world-class facility for our students that is commensurate with our being in the Pac-12."

New on the job as president after many years as U. provost, Pershing is on a mission to improve student success. He and Snyder have argued that great recreational and wellness facilities not only promote student recruitment and retention, but also academic achievement. But convincing state lawmakers to appropriate money for non-academic facilities was not likely, particularly since the national recession hit.

Utah State and Utah Valley universities have their own student rec centers in the works. These projects also rely entirely on revenue bonds and private gifts. For all three centers, student fees will be raised to pay down the bonds, sparing taxpayers any of the burden.

The U.'s center will be more comprehensive, with an aquatic center, five courts, cardio and weight training facility, racquetball, indoor track, wellness clinic and a cafe. The three-story facility will be open year-round for 16 to 18 hours seven days a week.

Construction begins next spring.

"I am moved to tears like Barb [Snyder]," Pack, a senior majoring in political science, told the trustees. "This is amazing. It will be the gem of campus. It's finally happening."

The new center is to go up at the foot of Legacy Bridge on ground now occupied by Tanner Dance and softball fields. The center ties into the new Honors College, TRAX station and outdoor sports venues on the eastern edge of lower campus. It supercedes the dreary windowless HPER complex, better known as "hyper."

After the move is completed by fall of 2014, the Athletics Department will develop basketball practice and other training facilities at HPER.

"We think it's a $15 million project. We're going to have $10 million in private funding and $5 million from our Pac-12 TV money," Athletics Director Chris Hill said. "It might be good to try to make it a little bit bigger so even more of our sports can use that. It would give us a better situation for all of our athletes."

The Eccles family foundations are no stranger to university philanthropy, having provided critical funding to scholarships, endowed chairs and capital projects, such as the new business school, Natural History Museum and the football stadium renovation.

Officials want to raise at least $6 million in private money toward the $42.5 million Student Life Center. The Eccles Foundation has already provided funds to design and plan the project, and other donors, like Kem Gardner and University Federal Credit Union pledged $1 million gifts.

"It was helpful to see what other colleges are doing and we're going to do it better," said Eccles, a U. alumna and president of the Eccles Foundation. "This is not just a workout facility. The design and the way it's sited near the dorms, it's going to be a landmark. Students have sacrificed a lot for it."

Turning to Pershing, she added: "We are thrilled we could do this, especially at the start of your tenure and your focus on the student experience."

bmaffly@sltrib.com