Private gifts give boost to URI arena project

While the General Assembly and Gov. Lincoln Almond have agreed in principle to build a sports arena and convocation center on the University of Rhode Island’s Kingston campus, details of financing for the $43.6 million facility continue to be source of debate at the State House.

This Thursday (Feb. 11) at 1 p.m. on the second floor of the State House, Almond and URI officials hope to give the project a boost. A press conference has been scheduled to unveil major private gifts for the facility’s construction.

URI officials – and the governor’s office – have refused to disclose the identity of any corporate sponsors.

Among those expected at the press conference is CVS president and chief executive officer Thomas M. Ryan, who heads a group of business leaders that support the project.

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Corporate gifts are a key to building what is expected to be an 8,000-seat arena and convocation center in Kingston.

In an agreement reached between Almond – a URI graduate and men’s basketball season ticket holder — and legislators last spring, it was decided that to fund the project, the state will pay $18 million, URI will raise $15 million for the project from corporate and alumni boosters, and $10.6 million will come from arena revenue bonds.

At the time of the agreement, lawmakers agreed to put up $2 million immediately, for architectural designs and construction estimates.

But now supporters of the project – including the governor – are looking for more money up front. That request has not been embraced by legislators.

Supporters of the project appeared before the Senate Finance Committee last month and asked legislators to put up $7 million immediately — $2 million for blueprints and $5 million as seed money to help the school raise money from the private sector. To date, lawmakers have been cool to the idea of such a layaway payment.

Lisa Pelosi, Almond’s director of communications, said the governor thinks the General Assembly should send a message – via the financing arrangement – that the state is firmly behind the project.

“This is a facility for a state university,” said Pelosi. “It’s a public project and we’re looking at private money to help build it. We have to show good faith.”

Thursday’s press conference comes on the heels of URI releasing attendance figures for men’s basketball games this season at the Providence Civic Center. According to the school’s athletic department of athletics, URI is on target to set an all-time record attendance this year. In five home games played at the Civic Center, URI has averaged 7,578 fans.

Linda Acciardo, a spokesperson for URI, said that besides the corporate gifts, the school expects to announce the hiring of an architect soon.

In related convocation center news, the Providence-based Gilbane Building Co. has been selected as the program manager for the project. The $2 million contract calls for Gilbane to oversee planning, programming, design and construction. Gilbane will also serve as the program manager for a separate $7.4 million ice skating facility.

Because Gilbane will be acting as the university’s agent during the project, the company is prohibited from acting as the construction firm. Construction firms will be selected through a competitive bid process. Gilbane will coordinate the work of the architect and later the construction company that is selected, and will report to Paul M. DePace, URI’s director of capital projects.

Gilbane has managed or is managing large convocation center/arena projects for Brown University, Michigan State, Harvard University, Ohio State University, The Pennsylvania State University, University of Maryland, Washington State University, and Columbia University.

If built, the convocation center would be the largest building project in URI’s history.

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