In 2005, years before California University of Pennsylvania broke ground on its $59 million convocation center, a consultant hired by the school suggested the center's planned arena was too big for the local events market.
It said an arena half the size -- one with 3,500 seats -- would be a better fit.
But CalU wanted a space indoors that would be big enough for commencements, so it decided on an arena capable of holding 6,000 people, an indoor venue it said would be the largest between Pittsburgh and Morgantown, W.Va.
Now that the center is finished -- and its grand opening event played to a half-empty arena despite a 2-for-1 ticket promotion -- a project that was already fueling debate over campus debt is raising additional questions for CalU and for the State System of Higher Education, which issued millions of dollars of debt to finish it.
Was turnout for the Kenny Rogers concert a reflection, as CalU says, of its decision to book an act that would not strain the new building and its staff? Were there problems with how the opening was planned or publicized?
Or, is the university now saddled with an arena too big to be consistently filled by events other than commencement?
A 40-page report prepared for CalU by Brailsford & Dunlavey, obtained by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette under the state Right-to-Know Law, said in 2005 that the university was entering an "extremely competitive" market for public assembly and conferences with several venues competing for a finite number of modestly sized events.
The center's California location was one of the challenges cited.
"The arena facility would appeal to small touring shows, and consequently, would best operate and complement the existing market supply with a seating capacity of 3,500," states the report's executive summary.
CalU spokeswoman Christine Kindl said the university began planning the center amid a prolonged period of enrollment growth "when the need for a more spacious indoor venue for commencement" became increasingly apparent.
She said CalU expects Saturday's commencement to fill the facility.
"No one anticipated a full house for the grand-opening concert," she said of the April 20 event. "In keeping with our conservative soft-rollout approach, we selected a relatively affordable act with broad public appeal that would allow us to utilize the building fully, but without pushing its limits.
"We used the grand opening as an opportunity to train new staff, test our parking and traffic control plans," she added.
Ms. Kindl pointed to another part of the Brailsford & Dunlavey report in which the Washington, D.C.-based consultant appears to take no issue with CalU putting campus goals ahead of market demand. "The objectives and mission of the university were rightly given precedence," it reads.
So far, the center has yet to book a concert for the fall, but staff are working "every day to find new acts to bring to the area," said Ben Bolander, the center's executive director and an employee of VenuWorks, the Iowa firm hired last month to manage the facility.
He expressed confidence, given various conferences and other events such as a home show that are scheduled.
"Will they fill the building? I don't know," he said, adding that he's sure "this place will be filled more than once or twice a year."
Those wary of the debt spawned by the center and other CalU construction say they hope that proves true because deep state aid cuts and other financial woes already have triggered staff layoffs and a warning from CalU president Angelo Armenti Jr. of possible faculty cuts in 2013.
Payments on bonds used to build the center and to make $20 million in campus parking improvements cost CalU more than $4 million annually: $2.5 million for the center and $1.55 million for a new garage, surface lots and related improvements, according to data CalU has not disputed.
The school in March projected $430,000 in center revenue this fiscal year based on 41 events booked, but when debt service and $1.1 million in operating costs are included, expenses could outstrip income by $3.2 million.
Michael Slavin, theater and dance department chairman and campus head of the faculty union, said the center is a financial drain and expressed surprise that those operating it since December for events including basketball didn't aim for a grand-opening sellout. "Why wouldn't you want to hit a home run?" he asked.
The center broke ground in 2009, using $19 million in state funding and, eventually, $38 million in State System-issued debt.
CalU planned to raise $6 million but fell short. As of this spring, it had $3,000 in private donations and secured $1.5 million from a state redevelopment program and another $500,000 from Washington County.
Mr. Bolander said that on opening night, the arena's configuration had been adjusted to accommodate about 4,000 for the concert. He said "over 2,000" people attended, but he and the university did not specify an exact number.
Despite the empty seats, Mr. Bolander said revenue outpaced expenses, but neither he nor Ms. Kindl offered figures despite requests made over two weeks.
Last year, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, the largest of the State System's 14 universities, opened the Kovalchick Convention and Athletic Complex.
IUP's enrollment of 15,132 is 60 percent greater than CalU's 9,483 students, but CalU's arena is bigger. It has 5,000 fixed seats and holds 6,000 if floor space is used. IUP's center has 4,000 fixed seats and holds 5,000 using floor seats.
Although smaller, the Kovalchick houses IUP commencements. Graduation is being split into morning and afternoon ceremonies to allow more guests to attend.
After several "soft opening" events, the Kovalchick chose as its debut performance the Harlem Gobetrotters, who sold out the arena on March 10, 2011, IUP spokeswoman Michelle Fryling said. A later concert by Kenny Rogers, held in June while much of the university population was away for the summer, drew about 2,200, she said.
Bill Schackner: email@example.com or 412-263-1977. First Published May 11, 2012 12:00 AM