The University of Connecticut is directing $5.5 million of its operating funds toward paying for the construction of a new hockey arena. The decision comes in the context of cuts to the university’s athletic programs and an operating budget that remains $12.6 million in the red, but with a significantly brighter funding outlook for the university in the legislature.
The total cost of the ice hockey arena is expected to reach $70 million — with the university contributing $17 million of that amount.
Last June, the university cut the annual budget for athletics by $10 million — a 15 percent cut in the operating budgets for all sports, a decrease in student athletic scholarships, and the outright elimination of four sports teams beginning in the 2021-22 school year — men’s cross country, men’s swimming and diving, men’s tennis and women’s rowing.
According to Stephanie Reitz, a spokesperson for the university, the arena is a requirement for membership with Hockey East, a New England college ice hockey conference for Division I teams. The university joined the Hockey East conference in 2013.
“Completing this capital project fulfills our obligation on this matter and will provide a state-of-the-art home for our men’s and women’s programs,” Reitz said in a statement.
Reitz said the $5.5 million is a loan to the athletic department that will be repaid using revenues from the arena, which is expected to be completed in 2022.
Scott Jordan, the university’s executive vice president and chief financial officer, said in a meeting of the Board of Trustees Financial Affairs Committee last month that the conference generally requires an on-campus arena that can seat 4,000 people, but UConn negotiated down to 2,500 as a reflection of what the university could afford.
“The commitment to fund a new hockey facility was made long before it became apparent that we needed to make the difficult decision to eliminate four athletics programs,” Reitz said in a statement.
Of the $70 million project cost, Jordan said that $33 million will come from bonding and $20 million from philanthropy dedicated specifically to the hockey arena. The university will be responsible for the remaining $17 million. Jordan said that the university will put $11.5 million from the sales of the West Hartford Campus and Nathan Hale Hotel, which, according to state law, can only be used toward capital projects. The remaining $5.5 million will come from the university’s operating budget.
Jordan said in the meeting that he hoped that the on-campus arena would do for UConn what it did for his alma mater, the University of Massachusetts, who won the national championship this year.
“Really what kicked it off for them was the construction of the rink on campus,” said Jordan. “We hope the same happens to us.”
Trustee Andy Bessette echoed that.
“I think this is going to be a real game changer, so to speak, for UConn Hockey,” he said.
A bold statement
In the Board of Trustees meeting, Jordan said that the university had been expecting a loss of $147.9 million — $110 million in costs from the coronavirus and $37.9 million in cuts from the governor’s proposed budget for fiscal years 2022 and 2023.
But the Appropriations Committee approved a budget that would restore the funding cut by the Governor and add $7.5 million in fringe relief to the university in 2022 and $8.6 million in fringe relief to the university in 2023 — an amount that Jordan said equals what the university allocates to research.
“We think this is a bold statement by the Appropriations Committee, and we appreciate it,” Jordan said in the meeting.
The university received $100 million in federal and state coronavirus relief funding, including an expected $27 million from the American Rescue Plan Act.
Jordan said this leaves the university at an operating budget deficit of $12.6 million. Reitz said that the University will probably either reduce its spending or delay hiring to compensate for the remaining deficit.
University President Thomas Katsouleas said at a Board of Trustees meeting on April 28 that the Appropriations Committee also restored a block grant to the university in the amount of $210 million, which the governor’s budget would have reduced to $205 million.
The committee also allocated $30 million for “badly needed” maintenance to UConn Health, and a bill in the legislature, if passed, would allocate $46 million to the university over five years to fund ten new “innovation” professors, seed funding, nurturing of start-ups, angel investment and patent support.
Katsouleas said that the university would announce on May 24 a plan for reopening in person in the fall.
“We’re going to declare victory here,” said Katsouleas. “The University in the fall will return to a new normal that is better than the normal that we left.”