SPEAR: "Events Center benefits entire campus"

ADVANCING IDAHO'S ATHLETIC FACILITIES has been a priority for AD Rob Spear from Day One. He's overseen construction of a new football practice facility, new locker rooms for all sports, and luxury seating creatively added to the Dome (among many others). Next up is a long-overdue Events Center, and Dr. Spear spoke exclusively to GVN about the need to make this key project a University priority.

GoVandals.net recently sat down with University of Idaho Director of Athletics Dr. Rob Spear to discuss the highest facility priority for his department: Building an Events Center on the University of Idaho campus. We discussed the history that has brought Idaho to this point, Dr. Spear's original proposal back in 2007, some of the decisions by past administrations that have led Idaho to its current design, and a discussion of potential funding strategies. With new University of Idaho President Dr. Charles Staben coming on board March 1st, the urgency to build this facility will be a hot topic, as will other athletic facility enhancements on the Moscow campus.

PAT HAUGE: Recently when we talked, you mentioned that Idaho's highest athletic facility priority now is building a new Events Center on the University of Idaho campus. Is that still your highest priority?


PH: Why is building an events center a higher priority than expanding the football operation? How does this benefit your overall department?

RS: "Having the basketball teams have their own place to play and practice from the beginning of the season would be huge. Having a facility that would be embraced by the entire campus is also an important aspect of making this a priority, because it benefits the entire campus community rather than just increasing capacity for football.

"Moving those sports out of the dome into a separate facility actually helps your football program and your track program, because now you have a year-round facility for those programs. It would be better to have a true indoor facility [which the Dome would become] that our football team can use all winter long to train and run and throw. We have a great practice field outside that we built in 2005, but you're dealing with winter conditions.

"One of the biggest advocates of building this Events Center is Paul Petrino, because he sees the benefits of having something for his football program full-time."

PH: Can you describe the Events Center for us, in its current form – understanding that the design isn't finalized and may change under Dr. Staben. For instance, is the seating balanced? Are there the same number of seats on both sidelines?

RS: "The seating around the floor seats about 2800 fans [evenly balanced on both sidelines and both baselines around the court, in a "bowl" shape]. There is additional seating above one sideline which brings the total capacity of the facility up to about 5100 seats. This design would allow us to curtain off that upper level, so that for volleyball or women's basketball you can create a 2,800 seat venue that is more intimate.

"On the sideline opposite the upper bank of seats we have a Club Premium Seating area and a Club Room that could also be used for football pre-game events instead of a tent outside. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Currently football pregame events are conducted in a tent on the practice field]

"The Events Center also includes a Hall of Fame area, so we would have an official home for our Hall of Fame.

"Underneath the upper bank of seats we have a dedicated practice gym. This area of the facility also includes a 3,000 square foot conference room and a kitchen that could serve large gatherings.

"From a design perspective, it's pretty efficient with everything that's in it, in trying to make it something everyone can use. The facility also includes 12 coaches offices, and below that are 6 locker rooms – one for men's, one for women's, and one for volleyball, plus three additional locker rooms that would allow us to host tournaments here, which would help with the economic impact of this facility on the community.

"This is what the designer we're working with has come up with, which would be a structure that might fit our needs. It's not defined in stone, and what we have tried to do is make sure the arts are going to feel good about it.

"I will tell you that the coaches love this plan."

PH: Is that partly because it includes a practice gym?

RS: "Yes."

PH: Did the 2007 design have a practice gym in it?

RS: "No, it didn't."

PH: We know cost is a major consideration with this project. We've heard that Idaho is aiming at a cost of $20-25 MILLION for this facility. Can you explain that in more detail, why this number is so important, and what the difference is between "total costs" and "construction costs"?

RS: "Once again we've undergone an extensive planning exercise to try to find the right size facility that benefits all areas of the University. We're nearing the time to present that plan, and the plan has to be able to be supported financially to get done.

"Looking back at the 2007 plan, it was $70 MILLION in "total cost" [this includes the construction cost to build the facility, plus all the other cost adders that will be explained below], which was a deal breaker. We had to reduce the size and scope of the project. We've done that, and our goal is to get it to where our construction costs are $20-25 MILLION. But that isn't the "total" cost of the project because we have to consider all the various add-ons -- 5% for all private dollars raised, 10% that needs to go into an endowment to fund the ongoing maintenance of the facility, internal costs from the Facilities Department, and inflationary costs that always that get added on.

"A project with a construction cost of $20-25 MILLION easily becomes $40-45 MILLION in total costs. That becomes an area of concern for the University, because anything over $30-35 MILLION in total costs is going to be a tough sell.

"In 2007 the construction costs for that facility were $52 MILLION, and total project costs of $70 MILLION. Now we're looking at trying to get the construction costs down to $20-25 MILLION and total project costs down to $30-35 MILLION."

PH: For many years you have described the "3-legs" of capital fundraising: Private contributions, student contributions, and University investment.

RS: "I would add a fourth leg to that, which would be the community involvement. We have a community here in Moscow that is starving for economic development. We don't even have any car dealerships in this community anymore. So we need to be able to do some things that create economic impact to the community. What a better way to do that than to develop an events center."

[EDITOR'S NOTE: This goes beyond just athletics, and includes attracting events to this community that could use this center in addition to basketball]

PH: Does the community want to do that?

RS: "I am the UI's representative on the Latah Economic Development Council (LEDC) and there is certainly interest and support form that group. I think the community would definitely get behind it. I think there may be some creative ways that we could find some funding through the community."

PH: So where do you stand on the philosophy of multiple sources now, as far as funding this new facility is concerned?

RS: "We are working on a business plan for this now, which is the next step for how we're going to get this built. But the majority of it will have to be private fund-raising."

PH: Definitely, but do you expect the University to contribute in the form of student funding, or bonding by the University?

RS: "I think there has to be some skin in the game by all those parties to get this done."

PH: Was Dr. Nellis interested in the University contributing to this facility, or did he want it entirely privately funded?

RS: "Ideally, he wanted it entirely private."

PH: Do you believe Idaho has the donor capacity to raise the private funds necessary to build this facility?

RS: "I think because there is such pent-up demand for an Events Center and because this facility would benefit the entire campus…yes. However, if you just focus on constructing a gift pyramid that determines how many donors you would need at various levels to raise $40-$50 million, then there is doubt. But we will never know until we make it a priority and go for it. Right?"

PH: Selling season tickets for basketball has to be difficult right now.

RS: "Well, it's hard when you start your season in Memorial Gym. It just creates an obstacle that doesn't need to be there."

PH: So, with a new dedicated facility, you can sell season tickets for a venue where the customer knows where their seats are at all times, and you can sell that regardless of what the football team is doing (i.e. currently if the football team makes a bowl game football extends their use of the dome, forcing basketball to play more games in Memorial Gym and operate without an extra practice court until the Cowan Spectrum is erected in the Dome).

RS: "Exactly."

PH: Can you expect there to be an increase in your revenue for basketball that you can't get right now?

RS: "It gives you a lot of opportunities to generate additional revenues. To construct a facility, I think we'll have to sell lifetime seats with seat backs. Once you pay for the facility, those dollars can be put back into the program over time. So, yes, a new facility would help our bottom line."

PH: Have you discussed this with Dr. Staben?

RS: "Not in great detail. He's aware of it. What I'm currently working on is a transition document for him that will outline all the areas of concern, and opportunities that are there to to address these concerns. Included in the document is a discussion on facilities, of which the Events Center is the number one priority. But I will also include plans for expanding the Kibbie Dome and creating additional capacity there. Actually, those are questions he's already asked about."

PH: Why, really, has it been such a challenge to build or expand facilities at UI, when the need has been so substantial for decades? Is it purely cost, or are there other factors?

RS: "I think it's cost, and I think it's the unwillingness of the University to say that this is what we're going to do. Sometimes when you dedicate resources to athletics, the academic side of the house feels like you're taking resources from them. I don't think that's true, I think this Events Center is going to help your academic programming, because of the research and academic conferences you could hold. Which is why I, again, think having the Events Center a priority is so important, because of the total benefit to the campus.

"It all starts with athletic facilities becoming a University priority. If facility improvement becomes a priority, then everyone is going to get in line to get it done."

PH: We have heard for some time that Idaho's lack of a dedicated home for basketball has hindered Idaho's admission into other conferences. Is this true?

RS: "Yes."

PH: "Is it difficult to spread this message on campus to the decision makers at UI?

RS: "I'll use the same analogy I used earlier. It's similar to the importance of placing the 2nd and 3rd year law school classes in Boise. The decision to build an Events Center is equally important, because it helps with the long-term viability of this program."

PH: Was facility improvement and expansion a negotiating point to gain admission into the Sun Belt Conference or the Big Sky?

RS: "No."

PH: Was it a topic to get into the Mountain West?

RS: "Every presentation we submitted to the Mountain West for consideration of membership included building an events center and included expanding the Kibbie Dome. I mean, you can talk about it all you want. But not having it done is an issue."

LINK: PART I: "An important hire; we need stability"

LINK: PART III: "There will be additional realignment"

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