First they beat the Grizzlies, and now the Bobcats have beat the $10 million fundraising goal for expanding Montana State University's football stadium

"We're absolutely ecstatic," Michael Stevenson said Tuesday. As the new president and chief executive officer of the MSU Foundation, Stevenson is in charge of construction and fundraising. "It's unprecedented.

"Now the work really begins," Stevenson said. The official groundbreaking is scheduled for Jan. 28.

The project will rebuild and expand the southeast end-zone, add 5,200 seats, new concession stands, restrooms, locker rooms, wheelchair access, a high-tech scoreboard and field lighting.

With more money and pledges still coming in above the $10 million goal, Stevenson added, it may be possible to build the new end-zone seating with pre-cast concrete, rather than aluminum.

Noting the schedule is tight to finish construction in time for the first fall 2011 game, he said, "We'll celebrate when people are sitting in the new end zone."

The $10 million was raised by late last week and verified Monday, three months after the fundraising campaign began.

"I'm thrilled," said Rob Ash, head football coach, while on a recruiting trip in Texas. "The full $10 million is going to give us the look and appeal our benefactors had in mind. It's going to be outstanding."

"We're extremely excited," said Peter Fields, MSU athletic director.

MSU President Waded Cruzado agreed in October that if private donors could raise $4 million, the university would match up to $4 million with university debt financing, to be paid off from ticket sales.

It was "a tall order" when the goal of raising millions in a few weeks was announced, Stevenson said, but once the key leadership donations were received, "then we reached out to the far corners of Bobcat Nation."

By the time of the ‘Cat-Griz intrastate rivalry game in late November, the basic $8 million goal had been reached, and Cruzado decided to go for another $2 million in private donations to enlarge the project.

The goals of the expansion are to create more seats to serve MSU's growing student body and the public, replace aging south-end bleachers, and give Bobcat Stadium a more exciting look and feel.

The corners around the south end-zone will be filled in with seats, replacing what look like high-school bleachers with a more big-time "bowl" look. The expansion will also create a more exciting "game-day experience," Stevenson said, with more fans and a larger, noisier student section in the south end.

More than 500 people gave to the project. Donations ranged from $10 that fans texted in by cell phone during the ‘Cat-Griz game, up to $1 million that an anonymous donor gave in exchange for naming the student section after the Bobcats' renowned football coach, Sonny Holland.

The biggest donation, $1.1 million, came from Gene Thayer, who came to Montana State in 1950 with some $300 in his pocket. He went on to found the successful Montana Milling grain merchandising company, become mayor of Great Falls and a state senator. He attends all Bobcat Stadium games and said he's glad to give back to MSU.

"I'm extremely excited," Thayer said. "I think by having a winning football team, the recognition we're going to get will greatly enhance the value to all departments at Montana State. ... Everybody benefits. It's nice we're finally competitive with our sister institution in Missoula."

The ASMSU Student Senate passed two resolutions, one supporting the expansion so long as no student fees were used and the other agreeing to move the student seats from the sidelines to the south end zone. There was some opposition at first, Eric Fisher, MSU student president said, but students supported the project after meeting with Cruzado.

"I know it will be an amazing stadium for students and alumni and the community to enjoy," Fisher said.

In response to some grumbling from faculty members, Cruzado told MSU academic leaders last month that athletics and academics are "not either-or," and that athletics is a "magnet" that draws people to the university and increases the chances they'll support the university's teaching programs.

Asked why this project was successful in the middle of the recession, while an earlier, more expensive proposal to build stadium sky boxes didn't fly during Bozeman's economic boom, Fields said the difference was probably "the scope of the project."

"Everybody bought into it," Fields said. "It was the right project at the right time."

Larry Aasheim, president of the 250-member Quarterback Club, said it was successful because "Cruzado had the vision." She gave them fundraising deadlines and created a sense of urgency, he said, and the Bobcat team had "a wonderful season."

Coach Ash said the stadium expansion, the public support it demonstrates, plus the team's success on the field would all make "a huge difference" in recruiting.

Stevenson said he doesn't know how many jobs will be created, but "it's going to be an injection of $10 million into the local economy." Martel Construction of Bozeman is the general contractor and A&E Architects of Billings, headed by MSU alumni, is in charge of design.

 

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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