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Robert Morris may purchase Neville Island sports complex

Center would house expanded university athletics program

Monday, January 06, 2003

By Tom Barnes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Since it opened in October 1998, the Island Sports Center has brought a lot of positive changes to the once-polluted western end of Neville Island.

Now, additional changes, including new athletic fields, a boathouse and a possible shift in ownership, are being considered at the 32-acre complex on the Ohio River island, where thousands of youths and adults flock for ice hockey, figure skating, golf, softball and other sports.

The Hillman Co. spent two years and $20 million creating the recreational facility by cleaning up and transforming an area that had been a federal Superfund site known as "Poison Park" because of toxic chemicals that were buried there.

Hillman officials are now talking with Robert Morris University about how the university might play a bigger role in the use, operation and possibly ownership of the complex just off Interstate 79.

Robert Morris "may become Island Sports Center's biggest customer, may purchase Island Sports or may create a relationship somewhere between those extremes," said Bruce Crocker, a Hillman vice president who is chief executive officer at Island Sports.

A decision could come within three months.

Asked if the university would buy the complex, RMU President Edward Nicholson said, "Make the price low enough and anything is possible."

Crocker said he was confident that "whatever the ultimate relationship" Island Sports has with Robert Morris, the complex "will attract even more attention to the region."

The 5,000-student school, whose main campus is four miles away in Moon, is thinking about adding athletic facilities so it can add several sports, such as NCAA Division I ice hockey for men and women, lacrosse for men and women, men's baseball and women's field hockey.

"Like other private universities, you need to compete on many levels for students, and the availability of athletics, especially Division I, gives us a competitive advantage," Nicholson said.

Robert Morris has a club hockey team for men that competes in the American Collegiate Hockey Association and won the association's Division III championship in 2001-02.

Players in club hockey, a nonscholarship level of competition, practice and play at the collegiate-sized ice rink at Island Sports, one of three ice rinks there.

RMU spokesman Mark Weinstein said that if the university did add Division I hockey, play probably wouldn't start until 2005.

"If we go to Division I, we have to have guarantees that we'll have ice available," Nicholson said. Thus the interest in closer ties to Island Sports.

The Penguins are closely following the university's efforts to strengthen its men's hockey program.

"We are great advocates of Division I and will do everything to support it because it would be another feather in the cap for development of hockey in Pittsburgh," said Tom Rooney, president of Team Lemieux, which owns the Penguins.

There aren't any Division I hockey programs now in the Pittsburgh area.

One of the closest such schools is Ohio State University in Columbus.

But it's not just big schools that have Division I programs.

"There are smaller schools, such as Lake Superior State University in Michigan and Mercyhurst College in Erie," Rooney said.

As to Division I hockey coming to a school around here, Rooney said, "It's probably going to happen in the next several years."

More than just hockey that would benefit from the new relationship between Robert Morris and Island Sports.

The university could use fields for lacrosse and field hockey that would be created on what are now seven vacant acres at the western tip of the complex.

That land has one big advantage over most places in the Pittsburgh area -- "It's flat," Crocker said.

A rowing center, which could be used by Robert Morris and local high schools, might be created on either the main channel or the back channel of the island.

If that happens, Crocker said, "the recreational value of Neville Island's connection to the Ohio River will finally be realized."

The university has a rowing program about 300 yards up the Ohio from Neville Island, Nicholson said. If it builds a boathouse on the island, it would work in cooperation with Three Rivers Rowing Association, a prominent rowing group based on Herrs Island in the Allegheny River.

Crocker said the Hillman company hadn't been actively seeking to sell the Island Sports complex.

And yet the company has found it's got something important in common with Robert Morris. He said they both wanted to "enhance the close relationship between athletics and education."

In his talks with Nicholson over the past several months, Crocker said, "we found we have similar objectives in using sports to advance a child's education. Sports creates competition and heightened emotions, and a child can learn self-control, self-discipline, leadership and teamwork."

Island Sports runs a summer hockey camp for about 100 youths, who stay in Robert Morris dorms.

Island Sports is home of the Pittsburgh Forge, a team in the Junior A division of USA Hockey, which oversees much of the amateur hockey in the United States.

Kevin Constantine, former Penguins coach, was a major force in creating the Forge and in running Island Sports before he left in February to become coach of the New Jersey Devils of the National Hockey League.

Island Sports has four rinks. One is a collegiate-sized ice rink used by Robert Morris, the same size as the Mellon Arena rink. An adjacent ice rink is wider -- Olympic-sized, the only one in this region.

Next to them are two other rinks, one for roller hockey and one for ice or inline skating.

Also at the complex, golfers can work on their swings inside a 75-foot-tall domed indoor driving range with artificial turf, which can also be turned into fields for soccer, lacrosse, softball and gymnastics. Athletes can work out at an indoor fitness center and duffers can play miniature golf at an outdoor course in warm weather.

Even if Robert Morris were to take over ownership of Island Sports, Crocker said, there would be no decrease in the public use, such as youth hockey teams and tournaments, ice skaters, golfers on the driving range and all-night softball games in the dome.

"The only significant change seen by the customers of Island Sports will be an increase in available programs," he said.

"Robert Morris' athletic teams will use the facility primarily at times when younger athletes are in school."

Tom Barnes can be reached at tbarnes@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1548.

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