The proposed new Natatorium — along with three other UW-Madison projects — has hit a serious road block. On March 20, the Wisconsin State Building Commission voted along party lines, refusing to move forward on a recommendation for each of the 80 projects that are a part of Gov. Tony Evers’ $2.5 billion request for capital budget projects. Each had been unanimously approved in subcommittee meetings earlier in March, but Republicans on the commission voted in opposition to each the projects. Some Republican legislators on the committee have expressed support for some individual projects, but in political protest to Gov. Evers’ request for approximately $2 billion in bonds, refused to even approve those.
The Natatorium is the third of four projects arising from the UW-Madison Recreational Sports’ Master Plan. Born out of student demand, the plan has incorporated student voices through every step of the process. It was approved in 2014 by a student referendum with record-breaking turnout, seeing 87 percent approval for the plan which includes the already-completed Near West Fields, the Nicholas Recreation Center (replacing the SERF) and the new Natatorium. It has also taken the opinions of students into account in the design of each phase of the master plan, attempting to make facilities more accommodating, welcoming and efficient.
It is clear to anyone who has stepped foot in the Natatorium that it is an inadequate facility. Built in 1964, the Nat is most often described as “dungeon-like” with minimal natural lighting, a confusing layout and insufficient space leading to cramped workout rooms. As the sole recreational building in the Lakeshore residential area, its poor design may intimidate freshmen and discourage continued use of Rec Sports facilities in the future.
Despite this, the Nat was utilized more than 500,000 times in the 2017-'18 academic year, and in the most recent student survey, 95 percent of users said they would recommend Rec Sports to a friend, and 88 percent said that Rec Sports improved their mental wellbeing. At a time when mental health has become increasingly scrutinized by both students and administration, it’s clear that Rec Sports is a valuable part of that wider conversation.
This conversation has become increasingly specific, with discussions between Rec Sports and University Health Services on the potential for a UHS mental health office to be included in the new building. As a viable option for increasing UHS’ capacity and access to students in the Lakeshore community, any sort of partnership is wholly reliant on the Natatorium project moving forward.
Beyond a partnership of space, the ability for exercise to improve the mental health is consensus, both in the Rec Sports survey and in academic literature. The demand for mental health services across college campuses — but in particular at UW-Madison — is reaching a crisis point. Improving Rec Sports facilities to increase capacity and make them more hospitable is a part of the solution to this crisis.
Fiscally, the vote against the Natatorium makes little sense. The project is funded entirely by student segregated fees, Rec Sports’ operational budget, private donations and an agreement with UW Athletics to take over the Shell once the master plan is complete. There is no state funding provided, so the effect on Wisconsin taxpayers is nonexistent. Regardless, due to the bureaucracy of being a public institution, the State Building Commission has the right to refuse this project — and has chosen to exercise it.
The state’s inability to move forward with the new Natatorium could have serious consequences. Millions of dollars in private donations have been pledged to the project with the understanding that it will move forward on a certain schedule. In addition, students approved raising our own segregated fees based on a project we expected to be completed in 2022. Delays to this project will undoubtedly increase expenses, putting the entire scope of the new Natatorium in jeopardy.
If the new Natatorium proposal were to not continue at this time, it is very possible it may not be delivered at all, leaving Rec Sports and students with the immensely cost-inefficient burden of repairing and replacing outdated equipment, including the water and air filtration systems, pool sealant, plumbing, roofing and flooring.
With the current state of the Natatorium, this would put a Band-Aid on a much deeper problem. Drastic action is needed to address the shortcomings of Rec Sports facilities. Luckily for current students, our peers from 2014 approved such an action; all we need now is for the state to find the political will to move forward.
Each of the 80 projects rejected by the State Building Commission will move to the Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee as the next step in the budgetary process. Both Rec Sports and ASM have been working to inform lawmakers of the necessity of implementing the Rec Sports Master Plan — part of our mandate to fight to improve the wellbeing of students on campus — but nothing is certain. ASM will do its part, but a larger student engagement is necessary to ensure that the future wellbeing of UW-Madison students is supported by sufficient facilities.
On April 10, there is a UW-Madison Day at the Capitol, sponsored by the Wisconsin Alumni Association, for all students and alumni to lobby lawmakers on issues relating to campus. Students who want to be a part of the university’s delegation are encouraged to sign up and list themselves as a Natatorium Advocate under the “Special Accommodations” section.
Jonathan Kim is a senior majoring in Economics, Political Science and Environmental Studies and serves on Student Services Finance Committee and Recreational Sports Board.