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Originally published Tuesday, June 2, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Time might be right to finish Martin Stadium upgrade

Cougars think key "Phase 3" remodel could be cheaper than originally thought, thanks to economic slump.

Seattle Times staff reporter

PULLMAN — With the severe economic slump, the popular perception of Washington State's proposed, dramatic "Phase 3" remodel to its football facility is that it might be deader than the Cougars' prospects when USC came to town last fall.

Not so, say WSU's athletic executives, who are exploring whether the downturn might just provide a prime opportunity to take advantage of an accompanying drop in construction costs.

"You hear out there that if you can build, it's the best time to build if you can get financing," says WSU athletic director Jim Sterk.

Phase 3 is the key element of a comprehensive, long-term upgrade of Martin Stadium that would add 2,200 seats to the facility's north side, but more importantly, would stabilize WSU's revenue through the use of luxury suites, loge boxes and club seats.

As recently as September, all systems were go on the project, which was to have begun in the first half of 2009 and been completed by the 2010 football season. In fact, artist's renderings of the remodel were prominent in the 2008 football media guide and recruits were wooed partly on the basis of that vision.

Barely more than two months later, however, WSU had scuttled the time frame because of the looming recession and what Sterk called a "nonexistent" bond market.

Now WSU might not wait until the recession subsides before moving ahead with its renovation.

Late last year, what was viewed as a $40 million project was to be financed with $16 million in donations and pledges, plus revenue bonds. WSU is now reassessing what funding model might fit if it built the facility at a reduced cost.

"Some of my alums have sent articles that Washington State DOT [Department of Transportation] projects in January, February and March have been 29 percent below estimate, 26 percent, 22 percent," Sterk says. "That's a pretty significant savings if you're talking about a $40 million project."

"We think there's an opportunity there," says John Johnson, WSU associate athletic director and its chief fundraiser. "It may be, oddly enough, a time when that project becomes more affordable."

Sterk says WSU has a design-and-build contract with Graham Construction and Management of Spokane, which he says will seek revised bids from subcontractors. If that number is favorable, WSU officials would then go to the school's financial experts and discuss what might be necessary in donations and premium seats, in concert with revenue bonds.

Johnson says WSU has about 100 donors lined up to contribute to the renovation project, and pledges have stayed relatively firm despite the economy.

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"We've had some people say, 'I'm committed to it, can I restructure my pledge?' " Johnson acknowledged. "All in all, people have stayed pretty close to their pledged payments."

The project would have 18 luxury suites priced at $35,000 to $50,000 annually. Loge boxes — clusters of four or six semiprivate seats — are $9,000 to $15,000 a year. Club seats would go for $1,700 to $2,000 annually.

Sterk issued a cautionary note, saying, "There are a lot of ifs in there." But the project is seen as necessary for WSU's economic stability, especially with two other Northwest schools, Oregon and Oregon State, having done major upgrades in recent years to their stadiums.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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