- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 25, 2016

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - The University of South Carolina received tentative approval Tuesday to build a $50 million football training facility after agreeing to reduce fees for in-state students.

A legislative panel that reviews public borrowing advanced the project a day after the Commission on Higher Education set stipulations.

One requires USC to reduce athletic fees charged to students from South Carolina by $1 million annually for 10 years, starting in 2017. The university also agreed to raise an additional $14 million to cut the debt in a decade. If fundraising falls short, the money must come from Under Armour and media contracts, both signed earlier this year.

The 105,000-square-foot facility - to include a gym, offices and players’ lounges - will otherwise be funded with student athletic fees, ticket revenue and $6 million in already-pledged private donations. It’s expected to open in December 2018.

In its proposal, the university says the facility’s location next to football practice fields means players will no longer have to cross Bluff Road to go from the stadiums’ locker rooms to practice.

Legislators say they recognize it’s about being competitive in football recruiting.

Several on the panel questioned the stipulations, since university athletics are generally self-sustaining. They noted no such conditions were required for Clemson University’s football facility. The rival’s $55 million, 140,000-square-foot complex - to include a theater and bowling alley - is set to open in January.

“I have concerns about the arbitrariness of these stipulations,” said Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter. “How did they arrive at this?”

A representative for the Commission on Higher Education did not answer during the meeting, and its director did not immediately respond to a message from The AP.

But Senate President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman commended the agency’s board for asserting its oversight role, following years of criticism it rubber-stamped colleges’ expansion requests. The Legislature has previously threatened to eliminate the agency altogether.

“At least they’re digging in,” said Leatherman, R-Florence.

Legislators also questioned whether students would see any savings.

“We all know when you press down on one side of the waterbed, another side goes up,” said Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Charleston. “There’s a little bit of disingenuousness about this process.”

Rick Kelly with university finances said trustees are likely to increase athletic fees for out-of-state students.

“We depend on athletics to sit on its own bottom. It’s not a shell game for us,” he told legislators. “If we’ve got to collect it from one group instead of another - if trustees agree to that - that’s what we’re going to do.”

Merrill said he wants to see the Commission on Higher Education dig into college academic programs, which directly benefit from state taxes. Many continue despite few students, said Merrill, who chairs the House panel that writes the state budget section on colleges.

“If we direct them toward that, maybe we’ll take these more seriously,” he said of the athletic stipulations.

Final approval of the 30-year bonds must come from the State Fiscal Accountability Authority.

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