UC Riverside looking into unconventional methods to fund on-campus arena

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The arms race that is college athletics. If schools aren’t looking to raise funds for a new stadium or arena the efforts are usually geared towards a new practice facility or weight room.

But it’s easy for the “big boys” to call up alums or rely on a couple wealthy boosters to fund their projects. What do the smaller schools do when they’re in need of funding for a new project?

According to Allan Steele of the Riverside Press-Enterprise UC Riverside is looking into a new approach in raising money for an on-campus basketball arena, and it’s one that isn’t too common in college athletics.

The EB-5 program is one instituted by the federal government to reward foreign investors who help boost the American economy through the creation of jobs capital investment.

The reward for these investors: a green card and what amounts to a fast track to becoming an American citizen.

The program has been used to help fund projects in Temecula, Murrieta and San Bernardino and even the Rose Bowl has pursued EB-5 funds to help with renovation costs. It’s believed UCR is the first university to use the program for an athletic facility project.

Here’s how the program works. A foreign investor antes up $500,000 or $1 million (depending on the area) and creates at least 10 domestic jobs from that investment. The investor gets a green card and after two years can apply to live in the U.S. permanently.

The program is a popular option for wealthy foreign investors to get on the fast track to a visa. It’s also been popular with American businesses looking for alternative ways to help fund projects in a tough U.S. economy.

UC Riverside athletic director Brian Wickstrom, who was hired by the school in 2011, made the building of a new basketball arena one of his chief goals when he arrived at the school.

With that in mind, Wickstrom flew to Shanghai to attend a convention that helps connect Americans to possible investors who are interested in the EB-5 program.

There was enough interest in the C-Center project that an estimated $20 to $30 million was committed, said Jeff Hopkins, president of the Hopkins Group, an Irvine-based company that has put together EB-5 funding for local projects and is working on the C-Center funding.

“You typically relied on bond money or fundraising,” Hopkins said of past ways to finance a large project like the C-Center. “Given where we are in the economy, especially at the state level, this project would not get built through traditional way of funding.”

Up next for UC Riverside is a look into the feasibility of such a project, which includes a look into how much the building of the C-Center would cost.

Apparently there have been plans for building an on-campus arena since the 1970s but nothing’s ever happened.

Looking at the current strength of the Big West, not to mention the arrival of San Diego State next season (maybe Boise State too), such an undertaking may be just what UC Riverside needs to establish itself within the conference.

The Highlanders have finished above .500 just once since joining the Big West in 2001, and that was their 17-13 mark in 2008-09.

Not getting a shiny new arena wouldn’t doom UC Riverside to the bottom half of the conference, but the lack of one would make things tougher in the future.

Photo credit: Riverside Press-Enterprise

Raphielle is also the assistant editor at CollegeHoops.net and can be followed on Twitter at @raphiellej.