“Oneonta State is currently seeking a new physical education field house, college president Clifford Craven said Monday.”
This was reported in The Daily Star of Tuesday, May 23, 1978. It wasn’t the first time such a field house was sought on the campus of the State University College at Oneonta, and it wasn’t the last effort made, in what took nearly 30 years and three college presidents to achieve. The end result became today’s Alumni Field House.
The 1978 effort to build a field house was one of several, dating back to 1969, under the presidency of Royal Netzer. In those years following, SUNY Oneonta gave top priority to the completion of the present James M. Milne Library. Consideration of other projects was postponed due to a state budgetary pinch of the 1970s.
Craven requested $400,000 in May 1978 to cover preliminary plans and designs for the project. The college had proposed a site off West Street at that time and construction costs were estimated at approximately $4 million. By August it was learned that the planning funds were scratched from a state supplementary budget.
SUNY Oneonta didn’t have an ally in Albany at the time. State Sen. Edwyn Mason of Hobart said in September 1978 that he would still oppose the field house. The entire State University grew “too much, too fast,” and should “settle down” and stop asking for more buildings, he said. Mason had persistently opposed college projects of Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, saying, “The billions that were poured into it were not all spent wisely or productively.”
The athletic facility on campus at the time, known today as the G. Hal Chase Gymnasium, had been built during the 1960s for a campus of 1,800 students. SUNY Oneonta had since grown to more than 5,000 students. With the growth of women’s athletic teams, the gymnasium was always crowded and many wanting to use it were often turned away.
Year after year, funds were sought from the state for a field house, but they were always turned down. By the fall of 1986 a space solution for sports activities had been reached. That was when a “recreational bubble” structure was inflated for the first time in the area where the Alumni Field House is today. The inflatable bubble was 290 feet long, 120 feet wide and 40 feet high at its peak. This new facility, meant to be temporary, cost about $500,000.
Although there were changing faces in Albany and at SUNY Oneonta, subsequent budget requests for the field house continued to be turned down. By the early 1990s, Alan Donovan had become president at SUNY Oneonta, and State Sen. James Seward and Gov. Mario Cuomo were key players in Albany. The approximate cost of a proposed field house had jumped to between $12 million and $15 million.
The field house project not only faced regular budgetary dead ends, but also resistance from neighborhoods near the college. Residents of Ravine Parkway spoke out against the location of the proposed project beginning in 1992. Traffic, noise and dust were among the concerns raised. Of the 20 residents who attended a public hearing in January 1994, about eight spoke to a group of the field house planners, regarding their concerns.
Kenneth Gifford, project coordinator for the State University Construction Fund, said the inconvenience of the construction period would be offset by the benefits of the completed field house, which he described as “an asset to the community” that could be used as a public gathering place.
The financial hurdle was finally overcome for the field house in May 1996, when Sen. James Seward said he’d broken through a logjam in Albany to overcome financial details on the bonding authority to set the $13 million project in motion.
Construction soon got underway for the 91,000-square-foot field house, designed to seat as many as 4,500 people for events on the sports floor. The completion date was set for August 1999.
A ribbon cutting and tour was held at 11 a.m. on Friday, Aug. 27, 1999, which was attended by many community members as well as college officials, guests and dignitaries. The first major event at the new Alumni Field House came Tuesday, Aug. 31, with nearly 2,700 on hand for a performance by singer Tony Bennett.
Bennett praised the architect’s work on the new facility, giving the acoustics a lighthearted test. With piano accompaniment and no microphone, the music could be heard distinctly across the field house.
This weekend: The new Hartwick College opened in Oneonta in the fall of 1928.
City Historian Mark Simonson’s column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is www.oneontahistorian.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/marksimonson.