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USC Crosses Goal Line for Basketball Arena

School says it has raised $70 million to build a 10,258-seat venue that will be named after Louis and Helene Galen, who donated $35 million.

August 28, 2003|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

After decades of frustration and delay, USC administrators announced Wednesday that -- with an unwitting assist from Carson Palmer -- they finally have raised the $70 million needed to build the school's first basketball arena.

The announcement came after a $35-million donation from alumnus Louis Galen and his wife, Helene, a gift thought to be among the largest received by a university athletic department.

"It's hard to say why I did it," said Galen, founder of World Savings, whose discussions with administrators grew serious when he traveled to New York in December and watched Palmer win the Heisman Trophy.

"I love SC," he said. "I guess it was destiny."

The proposed 10,258-seat arena -- to be named the Galen Center -- would be constructed at Figueroa Street and Jefferson Boulevard. It could play host to as many as 130 events a year, housing the basketball and volleyball teams as well as theater, arts and community functions.

Administrators hope to complete an environmental impact report and have building permits in hand by September 2004. If all goes as planned, the arena would open by May 2006.

"It's been a long time coming," Athletic Director Mike Garrett said. "I'm just excited beyond belief."

The project has been around, in one form or another, for decades. As USC President Steven Sample said: "There are Trojans still alive who have waited 50 or 60 years ... believe me, I've gotten letters."

Four years ago, Sample and Garrett announced a renewed effort but ran into an economic down cycle and could not find a corporation willing to pay tens of millions for naming rights.

Department fund-raisers shifted their focus to private donors, negotiating with seven or eight candidates who could afford a large gift. They hoped for a burst of alumni enthusiasm as Palmer led the Trojans to an 11-2 record and Orange Bowl victory last season.

It is not surprising Galen, a long-time football fan, stepped forward.

A 1951 graduate of the USC Law School, he proposed to Helene at a pep rally. On their wedding day, he presented her with a marching band helmet, which she wore at the reception.

Over the years, the Galens have donated more than $1.5 million for an upscale dining room beside Heritage Hall and a ceramics studio in the fine arts school.

In December, after the Heisman ceremony in New York, Galen pledged $10 million toward the arena and made it known he might give more to put his name on the building.

He was motivated by memories of attending basketball games at the Shrine Auditorium and watching other universities build arenas. He thought, What the heck is wrong with us?

Finally, Helene told him: "You'll never be able to sit in that [arena] with somebody else's name on it."

By adding $25 million to their initial pledge, the Galens pushed fund-raising past the $70-million goal, enough for a facility that would include 21 luxury suites, a hall of fame and a merchandise store.

The university is now spared putting a corporate name on its arena. Although the school wants six corporations to become founding partners at a cost of $5 million each, the private gift means less commercial signage inside.

"I think the alumni community in particular is going to be very happy it was a private donor," Associate Athletic Director Carol Dougherty said.

The proposed structure -- shown in sketches with a brick facade and rows of trees -- also has caught the eye of a community group.

Sandra McNeill of the Figueroa Corridor Coalition for Economic Justice said her organization will meet with administrators to ask that the arena employ local residents and that some funds be devoted to nearby parks and recreation centers.

In the meantime, USC continues to seek donations. The department would like to hang an elaborate scoreboard from the ceiling. More important, an estimated $30 million is needed for a second construction phase that would add three practice courts and coaches' offices.

There is much work to do, Dougherty said. But after years of waiting, she added, "there's a sense of relief that we've gotten this far."

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