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For UT-Arlington, More Than Just a New Building

The University of Texas at Arlington unveiled more than just a new basketball stadium this week. Its new $78 million, 7,000-seat venue is also a key part of an effort to become a top-tier institution.

Men's assistant basketball coach Zak Buncik takes in the new center during a press conference at  The University of Texas Arlington  College Park Center. The 7000 seat event center opens February 1, 2012.

The opening of the University of Texas at Arlington’s new College Park Center was the place to see and be seen Wednesday night. As North Texas businessmen, politicians, media personalities and assorted higher-education administrators crowded the hospitality suite, James Spaniolo stood at center court before the largest crowd to ever attend a basketball game at the university.

“You know, Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore,” the UT-Arlington president bellowed.

Later that night, which featured wins by the men’s and women’s teams, Scott Cross, head coach of the men’s team, called the $78 million, 7,000-seat special-events arena “a dream come true.” The star forward LaMarcus Reed III said of the crowd: “It’s a different feeling. That noise, it just moves through you.”

Across campus, Texas Hall — the basketball program’s proverbial Kansas, where the men had played since 1965 and the women since 1972 — was dark. Gone was the unique charm of a performing arts theater that converted its stage into a basketball court, complete with the ever-present risk of falling into the orchestra pit.

Will Mayor Robert Cluck miss it? “Absolutely not,” he said of the facility that Sports Illustrated listed in 1997 as the country’s “best place to watch basketball,” more for its novelty than its grandeur.

Cluck’s eagerness to embrace the newer, bigger arena captures the current spirit at both UT-Arlington and in the city itself, where the College Park Center’s opening is not just being heralded as a new era for the university’s sports programs, but as the beginning of a new institution.

“We haven’t been a commuter school for a number of years,” Spaniolo said. “But there’s this lingering perception that, essentially, UT-Arlington was very good academically, but there wasn’t much happening here from a student life standpoint.”

The new center is intended to be the linchpin of a new College Park District adjacent to campus complete with 600 new beds in university-run student housing, a 1,800-car parking garage and ample retail space.

There has been significant buy-in from the community, including an $18 million investment by the city. Cluck said he anticipated that in addition to boosting the university, the project would fuel a rejuvenation of downtown. “It’s a beautiful thing, something we’ve never had in Arlington, something we’ve needed,” he said.

UT-Arlington is one of eight public universities in Texas vying to be the state’s next top-tier national research university. And much of that effort has recently been focused on building the center, which will host major concerts and speakers in addition to university sports. But it contributes little, if any, research value.

In the last year, the university’s most significant private gifts have been directed toward the facility — the construction was supported by roughly $10 million in private philanthropy — and other projects instead of toward research. This put the university at a disadvantage in a competition created by the state Legislature that uses a limited pool of money to match large gifts targeted toward research at certain public universities attempting to move into the top tier.

Spaniolo said there are many paths to becoming a major research university, including creating an environment that attracts students and professors. “We’re working on multiple fronts toward progress along that road, and we know there isn’t any one project or one step or one gift that’s going to be the silver bullet,” he said.

John Hall, the university’s vice president for administration and campus operations, said the center and surrounding district are unlikely to bring in extra revenue for academic pursuits on campus, but they will be important self-sustaining aspects of the university.

Asked if it was a gamble to place so much hope on a basketball arena in a decidedly football-oriented state, Spaniolo said he did not think so.

“There are no sure things,” he said, “but we’re very optimistic.”

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