Indiana, PA - Indiana County

Years in the making, KCAC opens with much fanfare

by SAM KUSIC on March 05, 2011 3:00 AM

IUP's Kovalchick Convention and Athletic Complex is open, and state Sen. Don White couldn't be happier, he told the audience at Friday's grand opening.

But how happy? Enough to move him to song.

"There's one (Sinatra song) in particular I think applies today, at least to how I feel about this facility. And it goes: 'Some day when I'm awfully low/When the world is cold/I will feel aglow just thinking of you/And the way you look tonight.'"

It moved the audience -- they gave him standing round of applause.

Such was the ribbon-cutting ceremony and grand opening for the Kovalchick Complex, a project that is every bit as big as it was complicated.

A total of $79.7 million is being spent on it. Six Indiana University of Pennsylvania presidents had a hand in it. Four governments supported it. At least three state agencies had a role in developing it. Two locations were proposed for it. And one metal salvage yard was acquired for it, and then cleaned up.

So 12 years later, here it is.

"I'm so inflated with happiness and honor and pride that I had to go uptown today to buy a shirt two sizes larger just to get my collar buttoned," said Indiana businessman Joe Kovalchick, speaking during the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

His family is the building's namesake, an honor bestowed for having given the state the opportunity to buy his land, the 33 acres on which the building sits, and for returning $2 million in proceeds as a gift.

"It's all in honor of my parents, Nick and Fannie Kovalchick, who I'm sure are looking down on us today."

And surely, his parents saw a building full of curious locals who had come for a look-see. The doors didn't open until 3 p.m., yet people lined up well before, waiting to get in. One estimate put the attendance at 1,500.

And while the grand opening had the trappings of a formal event, it had the feel of an indoor festival.

Circus clowns painted children's faces. People snacked on free sodas, chips and nachos. Music played over the speakers. But the main attraction was the building itself, all 150,000 square feet of it, housing a modern arena, an auditorium, offices and a conference center.

"This is an unbelievable facility. What an asset to this community," said John Cavanaugh, chancellor of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.

It's also a stamp that says IUP is a big-time university, said U.S. Rep. Mark Critz, D-Johnstown.

It's also a great opportunity to bring the community and the university together, said state Rep. Dave Reed, R-Indiana.

It's also a wonderful, remarkable, first-class building, said White, R-Indiana.

"This is such a proud moment for each and every one of us," he said. "We are finally seeing the reward gained from the time, patience, investment and dedication of so many people and so many organizations."

But work still remains -- there's a hotel to build next door. An upscale, full-service, $15 million to $20 million hotel, that is.

That part of the project, which is under the auspices of the Foundation for IUP, remains in dry dock, where it has been since it was announced in 2007. The foundation has had trouble advancing the hotel due in part to financial issues.

Nonetheless, IUP officials promised that it will come in time.

"It's not a matter of if it will happen. It's a matter of when it will happen," said Dr. Cornelius Wooten, IUP's vice president for administration and finance.

The Kovalchick Complex needs a next-door hotel, so the thinking goes, because without one, conventioneers will be less inclined to hold conferences there and out-of-towners will be less inclined to travel here for performances and other attractions. Even an early feasibility study said the lack of a hotel could leave the Kovalchick Complex wanting for business.

And it needs all the business it can get.

There's a $34 million construction debt to pay. Additionally, IUP believes the Kovalchick Complex will incur $1.2 million in annual operating losses. And the commitments are on the books at the worst possible time.

The university is figuring on a $10 million deficit next year. The complex's operating losses and debt service -- $3.6 million in total -- are contributing.

IUP's faculty union is not showing much enthusiasm for the project. It said the money being diverted to the Kovalchick Complex is money that might otherwise have been enough to hire 29 professors at a university where enrollment is increasing.

But there's little point in debating whether the complex was worth it. It's what economists call a sunk cost, meaning that the expense has been incurred and can't be reversed, only paid for, said Willard Radell, an economics professor and a member of the university's advisory budget committee.

"We're obligated," he said. "Now the name of the game is how much value can we get out of (the complex)."

He said that every dollar earned above expectations potentially is one less that the university has to cover.

That in mind, Pennsylvania House Speaker and IUP Trustee Sam Smith, R-Punxsutawney, told the audience Friday that IUP and the community must remain mindful of the challenges ahead. Although the building is finished, Smith said, this is not a time for complacency.

"It's not over. Tomorrow starts another chapter. And that challenge mostly falls on the university and on the professional organization that was hired to manage the events side of this building. But there is still a great challenge before us and that's something all of us in the community can help make happen. We all have to stay committed. We all have to work hard to make this place work. It's important to the growth of this community."

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