Obstacles mounting against Rutgers stadium

Posted: July 17, 2008

PISCATAWAY, N.J. - From here, everything seems idyllic.

On a gorgeous summer afternoon, standing amid the steel-and-concrete guts of Rutgers Stadium, athletic director Robert Mulcahy points to where the school's first "premium" football seats will go.

Here will be the plasma screens. Here will be the heaters that keep high-end fans comfortable when they venture outside, away from the carving station and bar.

Below, in red shorts and gray T-shirts, members of the Rutgers football team move through drills. With no opposition, they run the field with ease.

State and school officials can only wish that the stadium project were running as smoothly.

Instead, plans to capitalize on the team's newfound success and bring a higher profile, luxury amenities and more fans to Piscataway have been hitting political and financial obstacles, with less than seven weeks to go before the start of the new season.

In December, state officials facing a budget crunch withdrew a pledge to provide $30 million for the $102 million project. Gov. Corzine promised to raise the money privately, but the effort has been sluggish.

Now, rising fuel and steel costs have prompted concerns that the school may have to scale back some aspects of the expansion.

Rutgers has already seen $31 million worth of work, but has finished only about half of the project expected by the Sept. 1 football season opener, school and construction officials said yesterday.

Mulcahy insists that all 1,000 premium mezzanine seats will be ready for this season and that the additional 13,000 seats in the rest of the stadium will be done by next fall, as scheduled, all within the $102 million budget.

"We're going to get it done," Mulcahy said yesterday afternoon after leading reporters through a stadium tour.

He's less definitive about other aspects of the project, which is supposed to include a new sound system, scoreboard, elevators, team facilities, and a new entrance that will ease traffic and make the stadium more visible.

"They may change some finishes, there may be some things underneath, but you don't know that until you get the numbers" of final construction bids, Mulcahy said.

Rutgers spokesman Greg Trevor confirmed, though, that some bids had come in higher than expected and that the school was "looking at every option" in the face of rising fuel, steel and concrete costs.

Some state officials are already worried about cost overruns.

"As big a Rutgers football fan as I am, I just cannot see the state kicking in any money at this time," said Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D., Middlesex), the chairman of the Assembly Higher Education Committee. As to reports the project may already be over budget, "it just makes you wonder how well they vetted the process in the beginning."

For Rutgers, the stadium expansion is supposed to enhance the glow of a booming program, now under coach Greg Schiano, that in the not-too-distant past was among the worst in top-flight college athletics. After an 11-2 season in 2006, capped with a bowl victory, interest exploded. Fans flocked to games in scarlet shirts, and politicians were quick to jump on the bandwagon.

Mulcahy said that season-ticket purchases more than doubled and that the school had to create a 12,000-person waiting list. He said the football team's success brought new donors and attention to the school in a way the team never had before.

"You make business decisions based upon the interest and the support," Mulcahy said. "You get these opportunities once. Since 1869, we haven't had that opportunity at Rutgers when it comes to football, and we have that opportunity now."

But as a vote on the project neared in December, Corzine was preparing his pitch to rein in state spending. Lending $30 million to Rutgers for the stadium no longer seemed like a viable idea.

Instead, Corzine, a multimillionaire former Wall Street CEO, pledged to contribute $1 million himself and raise the rest, along with Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D., Union), through private donations. With that fund-raising pending, Rutgers officials voted to borrow $72 million for the project, issuing assurances that the rest of the funding would turn up.

So far, the fund-raising effort has brought in $250,000, all from Corzine.

Spokesman Sean Darcy said Corzine had to go through an "extensive" review of ethics rules to ensure he didn't raise any conflicts of interest while soliciting donors.

"The process just started," Darcy said, noting that letters went out last month.

Mulcahy said he had "all the confidence in the world" that Corzine would come through.

The only member of the Rutgers Board of Governors to vote no on the project was George Zoffinger, the former head of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority.

"I thought it was a mistake, but since the board voted for it, it's imperative that we try to get it done right," Zoffinger said in an interview. "If we would have just taken our time, we would have been much better off."

Bids on the second phase of work are due next month, Mulcahy said.

Contact staff writer Jonathan Tamari at 609-989-9016 or jtamari@phillynews.com

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