31 Years and CountingIs This Seat Taken?

Local CONTACT offices push forward, in spite of budgetary obstacles UT's student body president chimes in on the proposal to substantially cut basketball ticket allotment for students

City Beat

Number three on mayor Mike Ragsdale's â“4 Goalsâ” (visit www. knoxcounty.org/4goals ) is â“Caring for Seniors.â” Ragsdale writes: â“I've found that, in Knox County, each generation has made our community a better place for the next. As a younger generation inherits this responsibility, we must ensure that those who came before us are not left behind.â”

That's exactly what the folks over at CONTACT of Knoxville have been saying since the local chapter was founded in 1976. â“We are dealing with people who are isolated, who are aging or dealing with some mental or physical disability,â” says Dianne Wilgen, the executive director at CONTACT. â“When people are isolated to that extent, it affects not only their physical health, but their mental health as wellâ. A daily phone call by a human being, a reach from a person to a person, significantly improves mental health, and it decreases the chance of a crisis before it happens.â”

She puts it more bluntly: â“We save lives.â”

In addition to the crisis/suicide hotlines, CONTACT of Knoxville offers a â“Reassuranceâ” program, in which volunteers call up to 70 isolated and homebound people who no longer have any meaningful contact with the outside world.

â“We are serving an element of the community that is not being serviced,â” says Marilyn Liberman, who has been with CONTACT for several years now. â“This isn't a popular nonprofit, because you can't see the work being done.â”

Wilgen says that it takes about $100,000 annually to keep the program afloat. Now, with a sharp decrease in funding, CONTACT's board members are looking for alternate sources of funding. In order to provide crisis/suicide services 24 hours a day, the organization will need an additional $30,000 a year, because there simply aren't enough people to keep the lines open all day long.

â“We're not the type of organization that gets checks for 20 or 30 thousand dollars. We're the type of organization that gets checks for 100 or 150 dollars,â” Wilgen goes on. â“It certainly makes the future a little less certain than it was before. We've had budget cuts due to certain funders having budget cuts themselves.â”

With only two full-time staff members and a crew of about 40 volunteers, Wilgen says that their clientele have problems that are complicated, due to either diagnosed or, more often than not, undiagnosed mental health issues. And Tennessee currently ranks 11th in the nation in completed suicides.

â“I don't think that some of the people who have been with us for 31 years would have been with us for 31 years if the calls were as severe,â” Wilgen says. â“It's not that the people who are providing [mental health services] aren't doing what they can. They're doing what they can with the money they have available. There's just not the community commitment to providing adequate mental health care. There just isn't. It continues to be cut.â”

CONTACT refers to their programs as â“emotional first aid,â” and they see their services as an entry point for many people who wouldn't have any other means to find the help the need on a day-to-day basis. â“It's not psychotherapy,â” Wilgen explains, â“and it's not meant to be a substitute for psychotherapy.

â“But (budget cuts) don't affect the service, because the service goes onâ. I know it will go forward until it's impossible to go forward.â”

To find out more about CONTACT of Knoxville, visit its website at www.contactofknoxville.org . â" Kevin Crowe

Students at the University of Tennessee realize the positive effects a newly renovated Thompson-Boling Arena will have on their teams' 2007-2008 basketball season.

When fans return to the arena after Phase I of the construction is completed in October, they will find a much more aesthetically pleasing concourse, new seats for the entire arena, a state-of-the-art, a center-hung scoreboard and 32 luxury suites to go along with loge seating.  

But students are beginning to wonder if the positives actually outweigh the negatives.

First the university cut campus-wide commencement in May because of the renovations, and now the UT Athletics Department is proposing a plan that will cut the student ticket allotment from 6,000 per game to 3,749 for SEC games and 1,530 for non-conference games.

According to the department, the reduction will be made in the upper-level student section, and all 1,500 seats in the lower level will remain reserved for students.

The department did say under the new plan it would determine the allotment on a game-by-game basis, factoring in variables such as day of the week, game time and opponent. The general public can purchase those seats not given to students.

The majority of students were away on summer break when the announcement was made, but that didn't keep them from voicing their concerns to SGA President John Rader, who is also home for the summer.

â“I got a lot of phone calls and e-mails,â” Rader says. â“People were concerned that they wouldn't be able to have an opinion until it was too late. Some students probably won't even hear about it until they return from summer break.â”

The department removed 4,000 general admission seats to accommodate the 32 luxury suites in the 300 level, dropping capacity from 24,525 to between 20-21,000. The revenue generated from the suites, which are already sold out for next season, helped fund the $15 million facelift, in addition to the donations from donors to Campaign for Tennessee Basketball.

Yet the money that could potentially be lost after cutting 4, 000 seats isn't something the athletic department can afford, according to Senior Associate Athletic Director John Currie.

Currie, who could not be reached for comment because he was out of town, told UT's student-run newspaper, The Daily Beacon, in June that the arena loses $1.2 million a year in revenue. While the school does manage the arena, the athletics department footed the bill for the renovations, which were Thompson-Boling's first since it opened in 1987.

The department decided to curtail the financial problem by eliminating student seats because of the low average of student attendance in seasons past.

According to the department's numbers, the student average for conference games in 2005-2006 was 2,131 and the previous year it was 2,708. Last season's average was not available, but it likely was higher because of the recent success of both the men's and women's programs. The men made their first appearance since 2000 in the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16, and the women won their seventh national title, which is a major reason why the department is investing more than $30 million into the programs.

But that has Rader wondering why the department is rushing to judgment about attendance when next season could attract more students than ever before.

â“The women have always been dominant, but we have every player back except one for the men and Coach [Bruce] Pearl has the team getting better every season,â” Rader says. â“We would like the department to err on the side of the students for a season. We've been breaking attendance numbers for games in the past two seasons [notably last season's Florida game when 3,575 students showed up].

â“If students still aren't using them after a season, we're willing to give up seats to accommodate any fans who want to come. But I hate to see students who have waited in line turned away at the gate.â”

Currie seems to assume a trial year won't produce different results.

â“We cannot have a situation like last year when we were turning fans away from the gate,â” Currie told the Beacon . â“People walk in, see how little of the student section is being used and say, â‘Students don't care about UT basketball.' It creates a negative perspective of students and how much they support the system.â”

The department's decision is not final, and Rader says he spoke with Athletic Director Mike Hamilton during a conference call immediately following the announcement to set up a meeting when SGA convenes in August.

â“I voiced the student body's disappointment, and I wanted him to know that I was discomforted by the decision,â” he says. â“We came away with the understanding that we're going to work hard to find some sort of a solution.â” â" LaRue Cook

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