March 14, 2012
by Cindy V. Culp
Baylor University's push to build an on-campus football stadium entered a more aggressive phase Tuesday as the school announced a major donation to the project and floated the idea that the stadium could be ready for the 2014 football season.
The university did not disclose the amount of the gift at the request of the donors, former Baylor regent and business magnate Drayton McLane Jr. and his family. But the contribution is the largest capital gift in Baylor's history, school officials said.
The previous record was a $20 million gift given by three Baylor Law School graduates to build the new law school.
The idea of a new stadium picked up momentum in fall 2011 when Baylor launched a feasibility study and fan survey.
The university is the only Big 12 Conference school without an on-campus stadium. Baylor's home games now are played at Floyd Casey Stadium, about two miles away.
The McLanes' donation gives the family naming rights to the stadium, which is estimated to cost $250 million. They asked that it simply be called Baylor Stadium, university officials said.
McLane, who late last year completed the sale of the Houston Astros for just more than $600 million, said his family is excited about contributing to a project they think will "shine a light on the university we love." The fact that it will act as an economic development engine for Waco also is important, he said.
"It's just an honor to be involved and to see it under way," McLane said. "We've thrown down the gauntlet and we're going to charge."
Baylor President Ken Starr said the donation will help secure Baylor's position among the nation's top college athletics programs. It also will provide alumni and students with an enhanced game-day experience, he said.
"Throughout our 167-year history, at what we now recognize as signature moments, visionary leaders have stepped out boldly to help propel Baylor and advance important university objectives," Starr said.
"We recognize that we are living in a remarkable time in the history of Baylor athletics, and we are blessed to have loyal, courageous and generous friends in Elizabeth and Drayton McLane and their family, who have stepped forward to encourage us all to take hold of a rare opportunity for our football program."
Word of the donation quickly spread throughout the Baylor community. Those fans, as well as Waco leaders, buzzed with excitement Tuesday about the idea of a new stadium and the economic development they think it will spark.
In particular, many said the stadium will be the catalyst that finally triggers major riverfront development.
The proposed stadium would sit on the east side of Interstate 35, on the north bank of the Brazos River across from Baylor Law School. A bridge over the river would connect the stadium to campus.
"I don't believe anybody right now can even estimate it," Jeffrey Paul, a football season-ticket holder and head of collegiate retail sales for Waco's QTI Promotions & Apparel, said of the stadium's impact. "It's all guesses. Anybody who even tries to is going to underestimate it. Talk about a gateway into our city."
Paul summed up the sentiment of many Baylor fans, saying there couldn't be a better time for the university to launch the fundraising campaign.
The school's football program is coming off a record-setting year that included its highest final ranking -- No. 13 in the final AP poll -- since 1986 and quarterback Robert Griffin winning the Heisman Trophy, the most prestigious award in college football.
No longer is Waco known for the horrific 1953 tornado or the 1993 Branch Davidian siege, Paul said. Baylor athletics has given the city a new image, he said.
"Athletics is more than athletics," Paul said. "Athletics is a marketing tool. If there was ever a time (for fundraising), now is it."
University officials cautioned that the stadium is not yet a sure thing. Construction will not begin until more funds are raised, athletic director Ian McCaw said.
The university continues to work with Kansas City, Mo.-based architectural firm Populous. Beyond that, no one has been hired for the project, McCaw said.
"We are in the midst of the fundraising phase," he said. "We certainly have a lot of work ahead."
With the donation announcement, Baylor released new renderings of what the stadium would look like.
The design is still in the conceptual phase and could change, McCaw said, but one fixed element is that the stadium would include a view of the river.
Plans call for the stadium to seat 45,000, with the flexibility to later add 10,000 more seats.
Floyd Casey, where Baylor has played since 1950, has 50,000 seats.
The estimated construction schedule is 24 months, McCaw said. That means in order to have the stadium ready for the 2014 football season, the school would have to break ground by this fall.
Waco Mayor Jim Bush said he thinks construction of the stadium would be the single most important factor in spurring riverfront development and downtown revitalization. He said two major projects are being considered by developers who have been waiting to see what happens with the stadium idea.
"They may or may not develop," Bush said of the projects. "But they weren't going to even get off first base until something happened on (the stadium)."
Bush said he thinks construction of a riverfront stadium would be the anchor needed to spur all kinds of development in the area.
He envisions water taxis, restaurants and other public spaces. Add in existing attractions, such as the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum, and "that's going to make one of the most interesting intersections on Interstate 35," he said.
Connecting the community
Local businessman and former Baylor baseball player Trent Weaver heartily agreed. He said he thinks the stadium's location will help connect Baylor to downtown and the Greater Waco community.
"I think you'll see folks dining downtown, walking to the game and then walking back into downtown," said Weaver, co-owner and president of W Promotions, located downtown. "I think it will be a tremendous revenue producer for all the local businesses and the community."
Weaver recalled that when he first came to Baylor, basketball games were played at what is now known as the Extraco Events Center. When the Ferrell Center was built, it opened up a whole new atmosphere for fans. Putting the football stadium on campus will trigger the same type of heightened excitement, he said.
Local attorney Robert Little said he is excited about what a new stadium would mean for Baylor football. He has gone to games his entire life and is now a season-ticket holder.
Little has some concern about ticket prices increasing with a new stadium. Although he would continue to buy season tickets, he worries some in the group of about 30 people he tailgates with might not be able to afford tickets if there is much of an increase.
The group also is concerned about whether tailgating might be more difficult at the new stadium because of congestion, he said.
Regardless, Little said he supports the project.
"I think anything (Baylor head football coach) Art Briles wants, we ought to get," Little said.