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Associated press

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. - Missouri State University and hotel magnate John Q. Hammons announced plans Friday to build a $60 million, on-campus basketball arena, less than two months after eliminating five sports in a cost-saving move.

But university president Michael T. Nietzel was quick to say the two are unrelated.

"We made it very clear that we would prioritize our athletic programs, and Mr. Hammons has made it very clear what his priorities are," Nietzel said. "I'm very comfortable with the decision."

After being hired July 1, one of Nietzel's first steps was to create a special committee that recommended the university cut men's indoor and outdoor track, men's cross country and men's and women's tennis. Facing potential state budget cuts, the Missouri State board of governors unanimously approved the proposal in December, saving the university an estimated $350,000 to $500,000 annually.

Despite objections by athletes and community members, Nietzel continues to defend the university's decision - even as it begins construction of its new basketball arena.

"We couldn't afford the operation of 21 teams," Nietzel said. "This has nothing to do with that whatsoever."

JQH Arena will include at least 12,000 chair-back seats, 20 private boxes, a private club and other amenities. Hammons committed $25 million toward the project, which will begin construction this fall and is scheduled to be completed by November 2008.

"I wanted the university to be able to build a facility that would live up to its new name, that would be a magnet for Springfield, and that would make all of us proud," Hammons said at a news conference announcing the plans.

Hammons is a Missouri State alumnus whose company, John Q. Hammons Hotels & Resorts, is based in Springfield. It operates 62 hotels in 22 states and plans are in the works for a hotel in downtown Normal.

"It's a very large project," Nietzel said, "the largest gift in the university's history. And one of the largest gifts in the state of Missouri's history. It's a signature project with respect to facilities."

Missouri State officials hope to raise at least $5 million for the project. The university will then issue about $50 million in bonds, with Hammons paying the debt service on the remaining $20 million he committed. The university will pay the rest.

"We plan to use a combination of private gifts, suite moneys, revenue from seat assessments, additional season ticket sales and other sources to pay the debt service," Nietzel said. "We expect this project to be stunning."

The arena will be next to Hammons Student Center, which was built in the 1970s and holds fewer than 9,000 for basketball games - second-fewest in the Missouri Valley Conference.

The new arena would meet the minimum seating requirements to host NCAA first- and second-round postseason tournament games. No plans have been made for the Hammons Student Center, although the school's men's and women's basketball programs will continue to practice there.

"There is no doubt that this facility will put our two basketball programs on a par with any Division I school in the country," athletics director Bill Rowe said. "We couldn't be more pleased."

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