$1 million raised for arena upgrade

Slightly more than $1 million in donations has been secured so far for renovations to the Smith Center, project director Dan Rocha said Tuesday.

Fundraising began earlier this year after the University announced in February that the Charles E. Smith and Robert H. Smith families, along with Robert and Arlene Kogod, had donated $10 million to the University to renovate the 32-year-old building that houses many of GW’s athletic teams.

The donation was predicated on the condition that the University match the $10 million with its own fundraising for the project, which is slated to cost about $43 million. The school has pledged to raise a total of $15 million, with the remaining $18 to be funded by debt, said Alicia O’Neil, managing director of the Office of Real Estate.

Rocha said the current priority for the school’s fundraising efforts is major donors – those who contribute between about $25,000 and about 1 million dollars. Donations above that range are categorized as “principal gifts.”

“That’s really where the bulk of the money is going to come from. Major gifts from people that are interested in athletics at George Washington University,” Rocha said, adding that the University’s goal is to raise as close to $10 million as possible by June 2009. GW has plans to spend $8 million on the renovations this academic year, according to the University capital budget.

Rocha said potential donors were reluctant to donate during the summer months and decided to wait until the fall. In addition, he said he expects December to be a good month for donations due to tax reasons.

“I’d say we’re right on target. We’re in a position right now where we have a lot of prospects identified,” Rocha said. “We’re talking to somebody new almost every day. There’s a lot of people that are interested; there’s a lot of people that are energized, so I think we’re in really good shape at this point.”

Rocha expressed confidence in the University’s ability to raise the necessary funds, though he admitted that the process might have been easier had it been started the year after the men’s basketball team’s 27-3 season in 2006.

“There’s absolutely no question that if we had gone to the (NCAA) Tournament last year, it would be easier to do,” he said, but noted that the Smith Center was not only a basketball facility.

Initial news releases referenced a number of upgrades and renovations to the current building, which are slated to begin in March 2009. Plans include an upgraded student-athlete academic center, and Rocha said the wall behind the west basket may be removed and replaced with glass paneling that would separate courtside seating from a new hospitality area for major donors called the Colonials Club.

Other possible changes include improved concessions services and lounge space, a new, more versatile lighting system expected to save $70,000 annually in energy costs, a “dramatically different” exterior, a revamped pool and backed seating replacing the current section of bleachers.

“This isn’t just a basketball facility. This is the home of 22 varsity sports,” Rocha said of the Smith Center. “We’re working to make those facilities as good as we possibly can within the footprint of the building that we have.”

Rocha said the only additional seating will come in the expansion of current overhang seating behind each basket into two full rows. These seats could then be sold as corporate boxes.

“The goal isn’t to make this a 10,000-seat arena,” Rocha said. “The goal is make this the best 5,000-seat arena in the country.”

After the University has finished securing major donations, Rocha said the project will seek funds from smaller donors. To expedite that process, fundraisers are developing a comprehensive Web site for project fundraising, which would replace the current, more indirect method of donating through the University development Web site.

“We’re working on that even as we speak,” Rocha said of the online component. “As we work through this school year there will be more information going on that Web site.”

Rocha said other ideas being discussed included giving smaller donors the ability to receive personalized bricks, plaques and seating nameplates in return for their donations.

Once renovations are completed, the Smith Center will be a much-improved representation of GW, said Robert Chernak, senior vice president of Student and Academic Support Services.

“The Smith Center is really the front porch of the University in so many ways,” Chernak said. “We want to give an impression of what kind of university we really are.”

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