ROB SPEAR: "It's gaining momentum"

WE'VER HEARD OF A NEW EVENTS CENTER BEING DISCUSSED on the University of Idaho campus since 2006, with frustratingly little movement over the years to get it done. But that may be changing. Inside this article - the first of a 3-part series with Idaho AD Rob Spear - we discuss the scope of the project, at least one target date, the steps needed to get it moving, and its impact on the UI campus.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Normally our interviews require a subscription to read. However, the evolution of Idaho's athletic program during this era of continuous realignment among the nation's Division 1A institutions is cause for pause, and now more than ever Idaho fans need to see what options are becoming available and being explored in Moscow. Moreover, last summer Idaho announced the largest capital campaign in the history of the University, yet no provisions were included to either expand the football stadium or build an Events Center that would become the home of Vandal basketball – both of which are in the University's current Master Facilities Plan, and are at the head of discussions whenever realignment is discussed.

That position may be changing.

We recently met with University of Idaho Athletics Director Dr. Rob Spear, and he spoke very openly about topics concerning Facilities (this installment, focused primarily on basketball), Conference Realignment (Part 2), and the hiring of Paul Petrino as Idaho's new head football coach (Part 3). It was a very candid discussion, and we thank Dr. Spear for granting us this view into his program, the issues confronting him today, and the various plans being considered to expand and grow Vandal athletics.

PAT HAUGE: You've stated in many of our interviews over the years that one of your major goals is to get basketball out of the dome. Currently, there is a lot of attention on Vandal football and conference realignment, but what is the status of the Events Center planning? Is it still a top priority for you?
ROB SPEAR: "Absolutely, it's a top priority and we are making some progress. The President is currently assembling a committee to review the construction of an events center on this campus, and to make sure that we have all different groups represented. We are close to finalizing a deal with an architect to put together a conceptual design and cost estimate for a new events center that will be put together based on input from the committee that the president is establishing. That is getting some traction and moving forward.

"I think I shared with you before some of the plans for expanding the capacity of the dome [for football]. That is something that is still going to be on the list, and we were very fortunate to get both of those projects on the State Board of Education six year plan last August. Those have been identified as priorities so that we can move forward, but the number one thing is the Events Center so we can basketball out of the dome, which would increase our flexibility for doing something different for the Dome for football."

PH: Can you clarify for our readers what exactly being on the six-year plan means? Does that mean that you have alerted the SBOE that the University intends to build a facility in the next six years?
RS: "Basically, as you said, we have alerted the State Board of Education that we may come forward in the next six years with a formal plan to begin this project. The board was tired of institutions showing up at these meetings and all of a sudden there would be an agenda item for a building that was going to be constructed, and the money was raised and was moving forward, and it was the first time that they heard about it and they felt compelled to automatically approve it. They wanted a six-year plan that is intended to make institutions identify facility projects so that the SBOE is at least aware of them, so when an institution shows up we can say, 'This is on our six-year plan, you are aware of this, and this is how we will move forward.' That's what it is."

PLAN VIEW: The drawing above shows the new Events Center in relation to the Kibbie Dome and Idaho Avenue. The facility will be located on the north lawn of the dome, and will share the concourse with the north grand stands of the dome. The current plan is for a 6,000 seat facility that will host concerts, graduations, trade shows, and other events for the University of Idaho campus and the community.

PH: Does that mean that Idaho would have the facility built in six years, or started?
RS: "No. It has nothing to do with when it will be built. It has nothing to do with that at all. The six year plan goes to the SBOE for review and approval every year in August. Projects can be added and deleted to the list based on institutional priorities. So, no, there is no correlation between the six year plan and when something would be built."

PH: Okay. It's just giving the SBOE a window into what you guys are thinking about building.
RS: "Right. We are making them aware of the possibility of this happening."

PH: Would the University start construction of a new facility for basketball even though conference realignment is still ongoing?
RS: "Yes."

PH: Realignment has no impact on that?
RS: "My opinion is we have to control what we can control. It doesn't matter what conference we're in. That events center is a need, and it's a need not only for our athletic program but for this entire campus."

PH: Is the Events Center something the U of I would undertake while the current Inspiring Futures campaign is underway, and why was it not on the original campaign?
RS: "I can answer the first part. Yes, I think they would. The Events Center was not part of the original campaign because the Dome premium seat project was determined to be the facility priority for athletics. Even though we would have liked to have had the Events Center as part of the Inspiring Futures campaign, it was not part of the original plan of the campaign. What happened then doesn't matter now though, because it has some momentum now, which would help the University's achievement of that overall $225 million goal, if we get involved and start fund raising for it before the campaign ends."

PH: Is this a project that President Nellis and Chris Murray support?
RS: "Yes. I've had conversations with the President. I haven't had any recent conversations with Chris Murray, but the answer is yes."

PH: Great. When would you expect to approach the State Board of Education about entering the detailed planning phase?
RS: "I wish I could tell you an exact date. A lot of it is going to be dependent upon us entering into an agreement with the architect to do the conceptual design and put the cost estimates together. That's going to be all contingent upon getting this committee formed, and of course the availability of some of these committee members, so you can have some productive meetings and get it done.

"I would like to think we could move on it quickly, but I can't put a time on it. I would really hope – and I'm probably being overly optimistic with this – but I would like to see this get to the state board in May."

PH: Previously, back in 2007, the Events Center was estimated to be about a $70 million facility. Can you talk about where you are today with the facility, as far as cost and scope?
RS: "The Events Center would have a capacity of 6,000 seats. That is the sweet spot. The architects keep telling us that if we have an events center, the ideal capacity is 5,000 to 8,000 seats because that is the size of venues that current popular bands and music groups like to play in. I think that fits us well, when we are right between two big college campuses, to maximize the economic impact on the community and the campus.

PRELIMINARY ARCHITECTURAL RENDERING: The new Idaho Events Center is planned to seat 6,000 fans for basketball, in the first dedicated home for Vandal basketball in decades.

"So that is the size and the scope we are planning around for the Events Center.

"The other thing we've talked about is the expansion of the dome and the seating in there – new seating that would be cantilevered out on both the north and the south grandstands, and adding seating in both end zones."

Looking at the east wall of the Kibbie Dome. This view shows the addition of balconies on the north and south sideline running the length of the field, and east endzone seating under the existing trusses. The balconies hold 1,440 seats on each sideline, adding a total of 2,880 new seats. Another 1,890 seats are added to the east endzone. On the west end (not shown), 2,500-3,500 new seats would be added, taking the capacity up to 22,000 (or more). Additional expansion (beyond the plan discussed here) could take the capacity up to 27,000 or more.


PH: Do you have a cost estimate to complete both projects?
RS: "The plan is we can probably get both of those projects finished for $50 million."

PH: So that puts the Events Center at about $20 to $25 million?
RS: "Correct. Plus, those seating additions that you've seen for the dome [adding cantilevered seating on the sidelines, and seating in the end zones to get capacity up to 22,000 seats or more - this does NOT include a dig down], we are talking about $20 to $22 million for that project."

PH: There have been comments on our message boards that the Events Center could be expanded. Can you explain how it would be expanded to 8,000 seats?
RS: "As part of our planning process we will ask those questions of the architect. We want flexibility, but we also need to control costs so the final cost doesn't scare people away.

PH: Is that something that this committee is going to look at, to determine if 6,000 seats is enough capacity as the University of Idaho moves forward towards its goal of 16,000 students on the Moscow campus?
RS: "Since 2006 we have been through a number of studies, and we really think the 6,000 number is right. You can have a 10,000 seat facility, and when you have 4,000 people in it, it seems empty. We think 6,000 is the right number. A lot of people probably think that's not enough, but what it does is, if you become successful, it creates demand. I think you want to create demand, and I think that the 6,000 size is about the right size because I think you can create demand.

"We could plan for a 10,000 seat arena, but it's going to increase costs – it's going to drive the costs up. Let's get something that's manageable and doable, and let's go with it. Let's make it better.

"Look, this whole facility planning process has been challenging. I have had to work with 4 different Presidents, deal with the Idaho Place fiasco, two U.S economic collapses, and devote countless hours addressing continuously changing conference realignment issues. I want something done, and something the entire campus can get behind. This facility is so important to the future of our basketball program. Our basketball coaches have done a great job, but they need a true home for basketball. When the Dome is setup for basketball it is a good facility, but we need a year-round facility. This would also help football and indoor track, because they would essentially have a year round facility as well."

PH: Despite the substantial reduction in cost estimates for the basketball facility, does it still fulfill all of your needs? Are there some things that would still need to be added to it in the future, or is this just purely a difference in building costs and building techniques?
RS: "I think the difference is building costs, and certainly building techniques. It's going to be a good looking building. But, current building costs, size of the arena, and actual construction methods are driving the new estimates. However, all the estimates right now are very elementary, which is why it is important to take the next step and get a formal design and cost estimate."

PH: Is there still a plan for a practice basketball court? Would you have practice facilities for basketball as part of this building?
RS: "This is very important, and the plan intends to include a practice gym."

PH: Is part of the committee plan, or objective, to lay out how the building would be funded?
RS: "The committee will evaluate all funding options, but the emphasis will be on private support."

POINT OF REFERENCE: The Idaho Events Center will likely be modeled very similar to the new 6,000 seat arena that Gonzaga built, the McCarthey Center.

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