CONCORD - A decision to spend up to $1.5 million to install lights at Cowell Stadium at the University of New Hampshire is being criticized as a misplaced priority on a campus with other construction and repair work needs.
State Rep. Gene Chandler, R-Bartlett, said the university has more important projects, and questions whether UNH's Board of Trustees has the authority to give the Financial Affairs Committee the authority to make the allocation without confirmation by the full board.
The Financial Affairs Committee last week voted to allocate $8 million in capital funding to the state university system. Lawmakers did not specify how the funds should be spent, leaving that up to the trustees.
"The language in the law is very clear in my mind," Chandler said. "I believe the whole board is the one that has to do that."
A university spokeswoman could not confirm whether the board formally addressed the issue at its meeting Friday following the Thursday announcement from the Financial Affairs Committee. But she said spending decisions by the committee on behalf of the full 27-member board is a regular practice.
"The Financial Affairs Committee is authorized through board policy to act on behalf of the board on the issue of capital appropriations," spokeswoman Tiffany Eddy said in an emailed response to questions from the New Hampshire Sunday News.
A vocal critic of spending the state's capital funding dollars on stadium upgrades, Chandler said there are infrastructure needs on the Durham campus with a more direct impact on the institution's academic mission than ballpark lights.
The university did not specifically ask for capital funding for stadium lights or even list the work on a "wish list" of possible projects.
Funding for stadium improvements became a specific part of the Senate version of the bill, championed by Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, D-Manchester. A House-Senate conference committee stripped the stadium improvement earmark from the final version of the legislation signed by Gov. Maggie Hassan.
The capital spending bill gave UNH an $8 million lump sum for capital projects, and left spending details up to the trustees.
"The lights were never in their request to the state of New Hampshire; nowhere did the university ask for the money for those lights," Chandler said.
D'Allesandro makes no apology for inserting money for stadium work into the capital funding bill.
Referring to Cowell as "a dump," the former UNH football captain said the quality of the state university's premier athletic facility should not lag behind the rest of the institution.
"If we're going to be a first-class university, we ought to have first-class facilities," D'Allesandro said. "Manchester has lights, Concord has lights, Skowhegan has lights, Salem has lights. Almost every high school in the state has lights, and we don't have them at the state university and that's appalling."
While private donors have paid for specific improvements, such as a synthetic grass surface, a new scoreboard and renovations to make the stadium suitable for track and field events, efforts to raise money for general stadium improvements have come up short in recent years.
A drive for an entirely new stadium failed a decade ago. An attempt to use state money to leverage private donations through a matching-fund program also failed to generate significant revenue.
For Chandler, tapping taxpayer dollars for a football field simply delays work on other facilities more central to the university's mission.
"I find it amazing that with the problems and infrastructure work that need to be done, that they would make this a priority," Chandler said. "We don't even have a baseball team, and that's America's sport."
Supporters call the lights an investment that will allow broader use of the facility, bringing dollars from prime-time television games while fostering a closer connection between alumni wallets and their alma mater.
"There could very well be additional revenue opportunities that result," said Eddy, the UNH spokeswoman. "The lights will provide better support for UNH athletics, but they will also open up a valuable state asset to greater use beyond UNH itself."
High school championships in various sports and events, such as Special Olympics, are listed by supporters as expected uses for an improved Cowell.
Chandler said he will seek opinions from attorneys and others as to whether the trustees' Financial Affairs Committee has the authority to determine how UNH capital funds are spent.
"I believe the whole board is the one that has to do that. I'll raise the question and get some sort of a determination," Chandler said.
However, since the capital spending appropriation covers a two-year period, there is plenty of time for the trustees to ratify the subcommittee vote, if the lawyers think it necessary.
D'Allesandro called the 125-year tradition of intercollegiate football in Durham an important part of the college experience that deserves a more fitting venue than a 77-year-old relic of the Depression-era Works Progress Administration.
"It was a dump then, and we haven't spent the time and money to make it what a first-class university deserves," he said. "We should have a decent place so we can attract good competition, and when they come, they recognize the fact that this is a decent place to play."
Lights are the only stadium work to be funded with the capital improvement dollars. Seating repairs and other work are not included.
If there is money left over after the lights are turned on, the excess funds will be spent on other projects on the capital funding list.
"If the lights cost more than anticipated, then UNH will have to find other ways to fund the remainder," Eddy said.
Installation of lights is part of a conceptual master plan for upgrading the stadium, she said.
But Chandler suggests that if an upgraded stadium is what UNH administrators think is important, then they should have come out and asked for it.
"To me it's a credibility issue," he said." alma mater