Gym lease by Bullets reviewed

April 21, 1995|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,Sun Staff Writer

For the past decade, the Washington Bullets basketball team has paid Bowie State University about $9,000 a year to practice at an old campus gym, an arrangement that costs the state-supported institution about $100,000 annually.

"A $9,000 rental fee for a full facility? That's unfair," said John M. Organ, the school's coordinator for physical education. "If you rent a one-bedroom apartment, you pay more than that."

While renting out its old gym on generous terms, the university has been forced to partition a newer, often overcrowded gymnasium, to allow as many as three varsity teams to practice there at the same time.

And Dr. Organ said they are unable to hold intramural leagues for students because they do not have enough space for nonvarsity games.

But a spokesman for the university defended the arrangement. "As good community citizens, we felt the need to work with the Bullets as partners," said Milree Williams Jr.

While he noted that team members helped to raise money for the school, Mr. Williams conceded: "The lease we negotiated probably wasn't the best business deal."

He said the university was examining its contract again as it prepared to negotiate a lease with the Bullets for next year.

The subsidy spanned a period of financial strain for the university: from 1989 to 1994 state aid to Bowie State dropped by $700,000 a year from $13.4 million to $12.7 million, state

documents show.

School administrators have repeatedly asked President Nathanael Pollard Jr. to seek more money from the Bullets. Under the current yearly contract, expiring in July, the Landover-based team annually pays $9,000 for exclusive rights to the 16,000-square-foot McKeldin gym, plus an additional $1,800 for 30 parking spaces.

In a March 10 memorandum, Steve Lienhard, Bowie State's director of procurement, said that the school would need to charge $105,160 per year to cover fuel, utility and maintenance costs.

"As you can see, we do in fact lose money by leasing the McKeldin gym to the Bullets," Mr. Lienhard wrote.

In addition, the university has spent at least $138,000 for repairs and renovations to the McKeldin gym since 1987, Mr. Lienhard wrote.

His letter asked Dr. Pollard to secure other compensation from the team if it were not charged a higher rent for the facility.

"I can't confirm any kind of numbers," said Maureen Lewis, a spokeswoman for the Bullets. "We are very happy with our relationship with Dr. Pollard and Bowie State."

In a February letter to Mr. Lienhard, Bullets General Manager John Nash wrote: "The Bullets will plan to use the locker room, weight room and basketball floor to some extent every day," even in the off-season or when the team is on the road.

Bowie State charges the Bullets rent of just 56 cents per square foot per year, while the break-even rent would work out to a charge of $6.46 per square foot, plus parking fees, Mr. Lienhard wrote.

As enrollments declined sharply two decades ago, Mr. Williams said, the McKeldin gym was shuttered. School officials saw an opportunity to bring the Bullets on campus. But the student body has grown in recent years, Dr. Organ said, and there is an acute need for more recreational space.

"We put a new roof on that facility," Dr. Organ said. "We put new doors on it and we can't even use the facility. I don't even have a key to it. . . I've been cursed out so often by students it isn't funny."

The men's and women's basketball teams sometimes practice on McKeldin's courts, but other students -- who pay an athletic fee of $111 per semester -- can't shoot hoops or swim in the pool.

In response to a letter from Dr. Organ blasting the Bullets' subsidized presence, Dr. Pollard wrote to then-Provost John Dill:

"Please be advised that the McKeldin Gymnasium will be used by the Washington Bullets for the 1993-94 academic year. That is the official position of the University."

Asked why the university only now decided to review the deal, Mr. Williams said: "Obviously, it's been going on for some years, but now it's time to take a look and get this resolved in the best interests of both the Bullets and the students of Bowie State."

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