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Finally, a state budget that puts URI athletes back on track

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Finally, a state budget that puts URI athletes back on track

Nov 28, 2023 | 5:00 am ET
By Jordan J. Phelan
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Finally, a state budget that puts URI athletes back on track
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University of Rhode Island Director of Athletics Thorr Bjorn kneels to touch the badly deteriorated surface of Slade Track & Field which has been closed since 1995. (Jordan Phelan/Rhode Island Current)

Amid the University of Rhode Island’s sprawling array of athletic complexes lies the shell of a once-cherished facility. Located between the softball and soccer fields, Slade Track & Field is a 400-meter outdoor facility constructed in the late 1970s that hosted tens of thousands of athletes and spectators until its closure in 1995.

Since then, the track has been left to decay.

“I can’t tell you the last time I saw someone outside at that track because it’s not a track — it’s an asphalt circle,” said Erynn Field, a graduate student and fifth-year thrower and captain of the women’s track and field team.”

Luckily, that’s all about to change.

URI is turning plans to make much-needed improvements to its athletic facilities into reality with the help of $65.8 million in newly approved state funding.

Part of a record $14 billion fiscal 2024 state budget signed into law by Gov. Dan McKee, the university is slated to receive a total of $191.2 million.

Finally, a state budget that puts URI athletes back on track
Here’s how the fiscal 2024 budget funds the University of Rhode Island.

Spread over three fiscal years, the $65.8 million in Rhode Island Capital Improvement Plan funding will enable the university to start making needed renewal of the east grandstands at Meade Stadium — home to football and lacrosse — as well as the baseball, soccer, softball, swimming and track complexes.

The plans paint a stark contrast to state-backed funding for Rhode Island’s largest university over the past two decades. With overwhelming approval from the House and Senate, the appropriation in the new budget represents a 16% increase over the prior fiscal year, a clear shift in what McKee has described as “historic underfunding” at URI.

In fiscal 2002, URI received $139.7 million from the state. State appropriations decreased steadily and then took a Great Recession nosedive in 2008. In fiscal 2021, the annual sum funded by taxpayers had dropped to $76 million, according to financial records.

For university leadership, the funding couldn’t have come sooner. Last February, URI President Marc Parlange unveiled his 10-year strategic plan,“Focus URI,” which included investing in high-quality athletic facilities and leading coaches and support personnel among its priorities.

On the athletics side, the news is the culmination of years of outreach. Thorr Bjorn, URI’s director of athletics, has raised more than $25 million for facility and programmatic enhancements during his 15-year tenure. However, he said these efforts pale in comparison to what is now possible thanks to state leaders for future student-athletes and community members.

“This is the first time we’ve received state support,” Bjorn said. “That’s why we’re able to do projects of this magnitude now. It would be impossible for us to raise $65 million to do these projects. So what’s kind of nice is to be able to say, ‘This is what’s going to happen.’ ”

The absence of Slade Track & Field and other proper outdoor facilities has had a ripple effect across campus.

For one, the delay of crucial renovations made it much more difficult to recruit D1-caliber athletes. Among Atlantic 10 schools, of which URI is a member, eight out of 13 have some type of outdoor track, a fact that doesn’t go unnoticed by URI and its contenders.

Finally, a state budget that puts URI athletes back on track
The bleachers of the Slade Track & Field have been without spectators for over three decades. ( Jordan J. Phelan/Rhode Island Current)

“I would argue that the coaches we’re competing against will absolutely use the fact that we don’t have an [outdoor] track against us,” Bjorn said. “And that’s real.”

Staff and students say some scouted athletes have decided not to come to URI over the issue of an outdoor track.

“We’ve had so many recruits say ‘no’ to us because of our facilities, not because of any other reason other than they don’t think that they can train to their best ability here,” Field, the women’s track and field team captain, said. “And I can’t say I blame that.”

Field recalls one outdoor runner recruit made his decision to not come to URI over fear of injury due to having to train on the school’s 200-meter indoor track, which requires sharper turns and alters the way athletes train.

For runners like Trinity Smith, a graduate student who competed for URI during her four years of undergrad and is currently coaching with the program, this is something they can easily attest to.

“Me being tall and having long legs, I have to shorten my stride on the indoor track to get around a turn. But if I’m on an outdoor track, I can elongate my stride and use it as an advantage,” she said. “You’ll have way more injuries competing and consistently practicing on an indoor track in comparison to outdoor track.”

“It’s not comparable,” Field added. “It’s two totally different tracks.”

We’ve had so many recruits say ‘no’ to us because of our facilities, not because of any other reason other than they don’t think that they can train to their best ability here. And I can’t say I blame that.

– Erynn Field, captain of the URI women’s track and field team

It’s not just runners who have bore the brunt of inadequate funding. For throwers, the space they use for practice, adjacent to the nearby softball fields, is “falling apart,” Field said.

She added: “Our circle is beyond repair. The gates are falling down and the concrete is chipped,” she said. “We have no sector lines on our fields, so we have no idea if our throws are staying in bounds. We really are guessing if our throws are legal marks.”

Not being able to train or compete at home also means the teams are constantly traveling each weekend to meets throughout the country. That takes a physical toll on the body and adds more stress over what to prioritize as student-athletes try to juggle athletic competition with academic preparedness.

“You’re constantly playing catch up with not only your physical recovery but staying up to date with classes,” Field said. “Staying home a couple of weekends out of the year makes a big difference.”

Finally, a state budget that puts URI athletes back on track
In 2002, state appropriations to the University of Rhode Island totaled $139.7 million compared to $124.9 million from tuition and fees paid by students. By 2021, $248.1 million in revenue came from tuition and fees, more than triple the $76 million in state aid to the university.

Despite the challenges, URI’s track and field teams have continued to dominate the competition. The school has won the Atlantic 10 Conference Men’s Outdoor Track and Field Championship for the last three consecutive years and the women’s team brought the New England Outdoor Championship trophy back to Rhode Island in 2021.

“We honestly take a lot of pride in that because we have worked so hard to get to where we are without the facilities that our competition has. For us, training without a track … is like a football team practicing without lines on a football field,” Field said. “We’re doing the best we can with what we have, but there’s no saying what our potential would be if we had the proper facilities to train.”

The long-fought journey to get to this point has been heavily assisted — and at times led — by those who it will impact the most: the students. From participating in URI Day at the State House last March to giving impromptu speeches to lawmakers on campus, student-athletes like Field have given their time and energy to advocate for themselves and for those who will come after them.

“Anytime there was any talk of it, or some representative was coming to school or we had a chance to tell someone how much it would mean to us, it spread through this track team like wildfire,” Field said.

“This has been a fight for five years and to know it’s going to happen feels like a win even though we don’t get to compete on it. It feels like the work that we put in and the effort that we all put forth to get to where we are was worth it.”

Trinity Smith, a two-time Atlantic 10 track and field champion with two school records to her name who has also never set foot on a Keaney blue outdoor track in her five years at URI, feels the same.

“I can’t wait until an outdoor facility is built,” Smith said. “It will make [URI] more of a home and it will impact Rhode Island athletics in a way that will expand them and bring home a lot more championships.”