“It’s moving forward now”

For over four decades the University of Idaho has discussed construction of a new Events Center as the home for Men’s and Women’s Basketball. As we’ve chronicled in recent months, progress is being made on the development of this project, which has focused heavily on far more than just a game-day structure, emphasizing the overall needs of player development and basketball operations.

PAT HAUGE: Last time we talked, you mentioned that there were two different design options you were considering for the Events Center. Have you narrowed the options down to a single, ideal design?

ROB SPEAR: “We have, but I think the design is secondary. We want to focus on providing the amenities as part of this project that will include what we need to recruit and develop our student athletes, like a practice gym, new locker rooms, and team meeting facilities. Our coaches embrace that, and according to our coaches those are the types of amenities that are much more important than just the size of the facility. Plus, the practice gym will be available 24/7, and as we know the capacity of this new facility is going to be 5K. Beyond athletics, this facility will include some convention space – about 4,000 square feet – that can be used for pre-functions before basketball games, and maybe pre-functions before football games.

“We want to create an atmosphere of exclusivity, and we also want to create a great environment. We want a ticket to a Vandal game to be meaningful.

“The size of this facility, at 5K, fills a niche for our University, and makes the Dome available for larger events. Right now with the basketball setup, the functionality of the Dome is impacted and affects its revenue generation opportunities. With this plan, the Dome becomes more viable and flexible, which I think is very important and a selling point for the entire University. The last thing we need on our campus is two facilities competing for similar events. Moving forward, each would have its own niche. This plan also helps us address a big piece of our facility needs and protects our teams from having to be displaced during the season like they are with the Jazz Festival.

“Let’s not forget about the Dome. If you want to have a concert at the Dome on a Friday night and have 15,000 people there you can. The beauty of this arrangement is the next day you can have a basketball game across the way at this new venue. The Dome becomes more functional, and that is a selling point on this campus.

“Our strategy is analogous to a classroom with a nice laboratory. In this case the practice gym is our “laboratory.” The laboratory is where the individual enhances their skills and discovers new pieces of their athleticism. Just like a classroom, without a laboratory students are not going to achieve their true academic potential. The same holds true for a large athletic venue without practice facilities. Plus, today parents and the recruits want to know how colleges can make them better. Would you construct a large football stadium without a weight room?

“As we evaluate the landscape intercollegiate athletics has a number of competing interests, where technology and television are the primary drivers that have made attending college events less attractive. In fact, attendance at college events has been declining, competing with watching a game at home where you can drink whatever beverage you want, watch replays over and over, and interact on social media. During games the ability to use social media is a must. A lot of the athletic renovations today are not focused on seating expansion, they are focused on technology advancements like enhanced wireless access.

“So, the next logical question is why not a bigger venue with all the other amenities? Well, the answer’s pretty simple -- you’ve got to control costs or it’s not going to be built.”

PH: How do you address the concern by some that this new basketball facility could be too small, and limit Idaho’s opportunity to join a bigger conference, or would keep teams from coming to Moscow?

RS: “That’s just simply not true. But, let’s just say we had a chance to bring in a major opponent in here and we needed a bigger facility. Well, you could move that game over to the Kibbie Dome if you wanted to -- we could do that. Now, I wouldn’t want to do that, because I want to create a home court advantage and I want to create an electric atmosphere.

“The biggest issue we have is trying to schedule non-conference games when you have no permanent facility for your program. A dedicated facility will help scheduling. THAT’S where you can get teams to come in. But before you worry about scheduling and joining a new conference, it is more important to take care of the student-athlete on a daily basis. That is why amenities are more important to recruiting than size of the arena.

“Facility size is a non-issue with basketball. It’s just a non-issue.”

PH: Historically, you haven’t been in a position to talk about a timeline or schedule for when these designs might become a reality. But, especially compared to the last 10-15 years, Idaho appears to be in a more favorable position now, with the capital campaign winding down, a local community that is receptive to partnering with the UI, a booster base that knows that facility enhancement is critical, and a new president in office that seems to appreciate athletics. Given this, can you talk about where we are in the process of developing this facility?

RS: “I can’t give you a definite timeline -- I don’t know when we’re going to be able to formally announce this and move forward with it, because there are so many moving parts. The good news is that we’re at the end of the Capital Campaign, and I know that between Capital Campaigns schools do mini-campaigns. The president and I have discussed having a mini-campaign for facility enhancements for athletics, and that’s a positive.

“We also need to be aware that no matter what we do, we need to get state board of education (SBOE) approval, even though we’ve done a lot of due diligence in doing some soil sampling and getting cost estimates that are as accurate as possible as we move forward. We recently received updated cost estimates, and for construction ONLY, the facility is coming in at $23-25 MILLION – construction only. Obviously, there are a lot of other costs that are associated with it, as we all know. There are advancement fees, endowment fees, and others, so there is a lot of work that has to be done behind the scenes to get this to pencil out right, for everyone that has a vested interest in it.

“As important as this is for our long-term athletic viability, I want to pursue adjusting some of the required internal fees in order to make this project, from a cost standpoint, more manageable. I also want to look at getting away from the traditional design-bid-build process to a more efficient model. We want to bring in teams of an architect and a contractor, and say, ‘This is what we want and how much money we have to spend, let’s figure out how to get it done.’ It’s a way to get something built much more efficiently and more cost-effectively. So, as far as a timeline, there are some internal things we need to figure out.

“But, the best news I can tell you Pat is that this is moving forward now, it has wheels again now … it’s not standing still.”

PH: How engaged is President Staben with this project?

RS: “He is certainly engaged. He understands the need, and he’s speaking about it publicly, which is very positive. But he is also going to be cautious, and rightfully so, to make sure that we have the right project that we can build cost-effectively.

“He is the President and will have input once we formalize where we’re going. Presidents are the people that drive change at Universities and drive progress.”

PH: Regarding the recently completed Capital Campaign, Athletics exceeded its goals by $11 MILLION, an outstanding achievement, exceeding your goal by more than any other college. Has this had any impact on the University community having an appetite to take on a major Athletics facilities project?

RS: “I think success breeds success. When you’ve done something successfully, let’s move on to the next thing. It proves that we can raise money. I always say raising funds for scholarships is the hardest, even though it is probably the most important. When people can give to tangible things like facilities -- that is great. The Dome project was successful, but it wasn’t the end-all. It was just the beginning and the start to where we need to be, and the project necessary to complete in order to get this Events Center constructed.”

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