Student center loses funding — what now?

Bruce Zoldan is the founder and CEO of Phantom Fireworks. Photo by Matthew Sotlar / The Jambar

By Matthew Sotlar

Bruce Zoldan, the founder and CEO of Phantom Fireworks, has pulled all funding toward Youngstown State University — including a $5 million donation for a new student center. 

On Feb. 1, Zoldan announced to media outlets that he would retract the $5 million he offered to the university unless the board of trustees retracts its hiring of Bill Johnson as YSU’s president.

“I couldn’t believe that [YSU] would even consider hiring somebody like Bill Johnson,” Zoldan said. “If Bill Johnson’s listening, it’s not because I’m putting Johnson down. He’s purely not qualified to be the president of the university.”

Zoldan pledged the donation to YSU in January 2023 to build the Zoldan Family Center, which would have replaced Kilcawley Center. Zoldan said he intended to give back to the Youngstown community and YSU.

“It would be nice to give back to the community, to the university. It’s a very important part of our community,” Zoldan said. “We grew up in this town. It provided us the opportunity to build a successful business that is now a national business — the leading fireworks company in America. What’s greater than to give back to the students?”

Johnson and his wife LeeAnn Johnson pledged to donate $100,000 to the university to aid in the construction of the student center.

Despite Zoldan’s retraction, plans to update the student center are underway with construction set to begin in 2025. 

The university has been fundraising for the center and will continue its efforts, according to Joy Polkabla Byers, associate vice president of Student Experience. 

“Fundraising initiatives are still continuing at this time, and we are proceeding with the original timeline of starting construction in May of 2025. There will be upcoming open forums for the campus community to hear updates and give feedback this semester,” Byers stated. 

Byers stated the cost of renovations will be “roughly $41 million” and that planning began several years ago. 

“We did a feasibility assessment about two and a half years ago to really see what campus wanted, where the location was [and] what types of programs and services were going to be involved in the student center,” Byers said.

YSU is working with several architects to begin renovating Kilcawley Center. Byers said there will be a new center without Zoldan’s donation. 

“We need to do something with our student center, so we’re still moving forward with the project. Our architect, WTW, which is an architectural firm out of Pittsburgh … they’re on campus once or twice a month,” Byers said.

While collecting input from students and faculty, an updated design for the student center is in the works. R.J. Markowitz, associate director for Operations and Events, said that natural light is a common student request.

“There’s [a] lot of big themes that we’ve been seeing. I feel like we don’t have one meeting that doesn’t go by without the phrase natural light coming into play. So, a lot of students are saying that they want more windows, more glass, more visibility from the outside,” Markowitz said.

Another common request is a communal eating area. Markowitz said the university is working on creating a central area for food options in Kilcawley Center.

“Being a tenant in [Kilcawley Center], we tend to eat in the building a lot. So, on my staff, someone might want to go to Chick-fil-A, and somebody else might want to go to the food court,” Markowitz said. “We either eat separately or one person has to come to the other, and I feel like a lot of students feel that way as well.”

The student center is expected to be completed by fall 2027.