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Planned ‘convocation center’ will also be new GS basketball arena
Marrero: $36.7M construction funds now in state budget part of $56M to design, build and equip
Georgia Southern University president Kyle Marrero speaks to the Statesboro Chamber of Commerce during their April Power Luncheon on Thursday, April 15. - photo by By SCOTT BRYANT/staff

The Jack and Ruth Ann Hill Convocation Center, for which $36.7 million construction funding is in the state budget awaiting Gov. Brian Kemp’s signature, will be the new home of Georgia Southern University basketball as well as some future graduation ceremonies, GS President Kyle Marrero told Statesboro business leaders Thursday.

State spending for the project is expected to total $46 million, including $6 million previously budgeted for design and $3.3 million to be requested later for furnishings and equipment. The university plans to supply another $10 million from its own funds and supporters’ donations, for a $56 million total package.

Speaking at a Statesboro-Bulloch Chamber of Commerce “Power Luncheon,” Marrero highlighted the convocation center as the largest project in about $100 million worth of construction slated for the university over the next two and a half years. Another attention-getting project is a $12 million all-sports, indoor practice facility that will contain a full-sized football field. That is still in the “conceptual” stage, awaiting approval by the state university system Board of Regents.

Marreo expressed hope that both of those buildings can be completed during 2023. With the planning ongoing, he declined to estimate how many people the Jack and Ruth Ann Hill Convocation Center will seat, only that it will have a larger capacity than Hanner Fieldhouse, the Eagles’ 52-year-old, repeatedly renovated arena.

“Everyone loves Hanner Fieldhouse,” Marrero said. “It is a great place. You know, a lot of lipstick on that building, but we have made it through and made it a great place to see sports. But it only seats about 3,600, and so far us as an institution of our size, there is not an option for graduation, convocation …, and all of those big basketball games and other things we do.”

For many years, the Hanner Fieldhouse seating capacity for basketball games was stated as a little over 4,300, but changes reduced the number of seats.


Legislative support

The university’s leaders have wanted a larger “room” for a long time, and Rep. Jon Burns and the late Sen. Jack Hill knew that, Marrero said. Burns, R-Newington, is the Georgia House majority leader. Hill, R-Reidsville, represented the 4th District for almost 30 years in the state Senate and chaired its Appropriations Committee.

Hill died suddenly April 6, 2020 at age 75, and his wife, Ruth Ann Hill, 76, who had been in an assisted living facility, died less than three weeks later. The Board of Regents in February approved naming the convocation center for the Hills.

“We wanted to do a needed project that would be a statement of Jack’s presence and impact,” Marrero said. “Literally we can tie about $300 million of buildings on our campus here in Statesboro to Jack Hill appropriating funds for us.”

The $6 million design funds for the convocation center were available since last July 1 under the fiscal year 2021 budget, he said. The $36.7 million for construction is part of the fiscal 2022 budget, which was approved by the Legislature on March 31, the last day of its session.

That budget is still “waiting for the governor’s signature, but we’ve been told not to worry about that,” Marrero told the Chamber of Commerce group.


On South Campus

The 120,000-square-foot convocation center will be built in the South Campus, beyond Veterans Memorial Parkway from the main Statesboro campus. The university oversaw construction of a side street from Lanier Drive into this area in 2018. Now the state is funding, through a 70% grant from the Georgia Department of Transportation and with the university paying the other 30%, the first phase of an extension of Akins Boulevard southward from the parkway.

The convocation center will include some classrooms and labs for programs such as kinesiology and sports science, Marrero said.

“But it will be a new arena, for concerts – yes, for basketball – but then also that we can actually have an indoor graduation, every once in a while,” he said. “So that’s pretty exciting for us as we love our Paulson Stadium graduations, but to have that option as we move forward.”

If all goes well, a groundbreaking for the center could be held by spring 2022, he said. The expected construction time is 18 months, so the goal would be an opening in fall 2023.


Indoor practice

In recent years, a number of universities across the country have added practice buildings large enough to enclose a full-size field for football or soccer. Georgia Southern’s, still conceptual at this point, would be just west of Paulson Stadium, beyond the Gene Bishop Field House.

“Twenty-one of our football practices were cancelled last year due to inclement weather,” Marrero said. “Also, baseball, softball, women’s and men’s soccer, all of our 17 sports will utilize this facility. It will be an open-air, hangar-like facility in its Phase 1.”

The proposal calls for some practice rooms outside of the main, covered field and for tailgating stalls with grills and other conveniences for fans between the practice facility and main stadium. He said he hopes the Board of Regents will approve in an upcoming meeting.

“It will be an entirely philanthropic-funded project through the Athletic Foundation,” Marrero said. “We have $1.5 million in pledges for that facility already, and it’s going to be about a $12 million project, all said and done.”

University leaders hope to break ground on the practice facility around the same time as the convocation center, by spring 2022. The practice building is a simpler building to design and build, Marrero noted.

Other projects in the $100 million of slated facilities spending include major renovations of the Kennedy Hall and Freedom’s Landing student housing and of the Williams Center, which houses student media organizations and other programs.


Enrollment rebound

Marrero talked about building projects after first remarking on Georgia Southern’s resurgent growth in enrollment, which accelerated in fall 2020 despite the COVID-19 pandemic, and included the arrival of the university’s largest freshman class ever.

Before and during the consolidation of the former Armstrong State University into Georgia Southern, the two universities, collectively, saw a decline from a peak enrollment of about 28,500 students down to around 26,000. When Marrero arrived as president of the post-consolidation Georgia Southern two years ago, on April 1, 2019, his first priority was to halt the decline and put new marketing and growth strategies in place.

As of last fall, Georgia Southern, with campuses in Statesboro, Savannah and Hinesville as well as online, enrolled 26,949 students at all levels from first-year through graduate school. Enrollment of new students shows continued growth toward next fall semester, Marrero reported Thursday.

“Our goal, with all the caveats of what might take place between now and August 11, is to land about 27,500 students, another 500 students total growth in all of our campuses,” he said.

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