Charles A. Sorber, Ph.D., the interim president of the University of Texas-Pan American, on Thursday, March 19, told several dozen members of the UTPA Alumni Association that he is not interested in applying for the permanent leadership spot of one of the 10 largest public universities in the state.
But, if he can pull it off with the critical help of the Rio Grande Valley legislative delegation Sorber could leave a legacy in South Texas for decades to come if he can come up with a plan to finance a proposed $70 million, 1,500-seat world-class Performing Arts Center that could feature everything from local talent to Broadway shows.
Sorber unveiled the opportunities and challenges facing both the university and Hidalgo County communities during a reception held in honor of him and his wife, Linda, at the Nuevo Santander Gallery in McAllen.
UTPA's interim president, 69, succeeded former UTPA President Blandina "Bambi" CΓ‘rdenas following her retirement at the end of January.
He is scheduled to serve as the university's president until a permanent leader is selected by the UT System Board of Regents.
According to Sorber, based on his experiences of serving as a president at UT-Permian Basin and Interim President of UT-Arlington, he estimates the search for the next UTPA president could be in place by January 2010.
Sorber was the featured guest at the March 19 event, which attracted numerous area dignitaries, including Roland Arriola, Ph.D., the president of the UTPA Alumni Association, Mayor Joe Ochoa, Edinburg School Board Trustee Robert PeΓ±a, Jr., former Edinburg City Manager Wendy Smith, who is now an assistant city manager in McAllen, and members of the UTPA Alumni Association Board of Trustees.
After being introduced by Arriola, Sorber opened up the gathering to questions from alumni, including whether he planned to submit his name for the permanent position he said no and a request for the status of the fine arts facility, which he said is currently being referred to as the Performing Arts Center.
In 2007, under an amendment secured by Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, UT-Pan American was given bonding authority to raise $40 million to go towards the construction of a fine arts facility.
But, Sorber acknowledged, in order to build a complex worthy of the university and South Texas, the ticket price would approach $70 million, and the local university is trying to come up with most of that funding through a funding mechanism known as a tuition revenue bond from state lawmakers during the ongoing state legislative session in Austin.
In general, tuition revenue bonds are issued by institutions which are used to improve the facilities on campuses. These bonds are guaranteed by tuition and funded from the state general revenue.
"At the last session (in 2007), there was a tuition revenue bond package for $40 million for what I am calling the Performing Arts Center (PAC). The preliminary design, based on the program, not the final design, on what the faculty and the community wanted, brought a price tag in of $70 million," he said. "So, there is a gap of $30 million. We have asked for a TRB to make up that gap. But the prospect of that happening that whole gap is remote."
But Sorber isn't willing to give up on that lofty goal, and although he is developing a back-up plan in case the additional state funding is not obtained, he is not willing to show that hand too soon, either.
"There may be other options, but we are not willing to go there until we figure out what the Legislature is going to do," Sorber said. "However, let me make it clear, I am supportive of the notion. We just have to figure out how to do it, we have to come up with a plan where we can take what we have whatever it is and we can't go out and raise $30 million in the community. Maybe we can raise $10 to $15 million, but we can't raise $30 million. We know that, we (UTPA) don't have any history of doing that."
The cost for the Performing Arts Center is based on a similar structure scheduled to be built by a fellow, but much smaller UT System campus UT-Permian Basin, located in Odessa which has a student enrollment of about 3,000 students.
By comparison, UT-Pan American's student enrollment approaches 18,000.
The Wagner-Noel Performing Arts Center at UT-Permian Basin is scheduled to have a performing arts and recital hall totaling 97,700 square-feet, according to that university. It will also have 10,500 square-feet in an academic wing with classrooms and faculty offices. The building, which will seat 1,800 people, is expected to open in the spring of 2012.
Funding from the UT-Permian Basin, located in Odessa, plus private gift donations from both Odessa and Midland and state money made the $81 million project possible.
"A (similar) facility under construction right now at the Permian Basin has a price tag of $81 million, just to put it in perspective," Sorber said. "The prices may be a little lower rightnow because the oil is not as expensive as it was, and oil drives everything. But the prospect of coming much under $70 million is just unrealistic for a 1,500 seat facility."
He suggested that The Wagner-Noel Performing Arts Center provides a good benchmark on what it will take to bring a similar project to fruition in Edinburg.
"A free-standing facility that would house the kind of activities that were envisioned for the community and for the university requires 1,500 seats to bring in the kind of shows that people would like to have," Sorber said. "Under this program, you can't do it for $40 million. We are talking about high-level acoustics, high-level backstage, the ability to bring in the Broadway shows and the things of that nature, you can't do that for $40 million."
The interim UTPA president expressed guarded confidence that the Valley legislation delegation will help come up with strategies to help bring the gap in funding for the proposed UTPA Performing Arts Center.
Hinojosa and Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville, who serve on the Senate Finance Committee, and Rep. Ismael "Kino" Flores, D-Palmview, who serves on the House Appropriations Committee the two legislative panels that draw up the respective state budgets for the Senate and House are in positions of legislative influence when it comes to doling out state funds.
In addition, the rest of the Valley House legislative delegation has the experience including two House committee chairmanships to push for the some, if not all, of the needed state funding.
"Sen. Hinojosa is also handling that, and all of our state representatives are aware of it," Sorber said. "They are going to do what they can, but they can't allocate a whole bunch of money if they don't have it. Now, I am not hopeful for that. We have to wait until we go through the session to see what the next step is."
Rep. Aaron PeΓ±a, D-Edinburg, has already begun to campaign to raise the needed state funding.
On Friday, March 13 the last day lawmakers could file bills for the current regular session the local Democrat introduced House Bill 4236, which seeks authority for the UT System to raise almost $30 million for the Performing Arts Center, referred to in the legislation as the "fine arts academic and performance complex."
Sorber said the efforts to raise substantial sums of money for construction of major state facilities may be tough, given the economic and political uncertainties that always face the drafting of the Texas budget.
But he remained determined to help come up with a plan that works.
"I am an engineer by profession," Sorber said. "It's my job to come up with solutions."
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