A New Arena?

Plans for a new arena at Ole Miss have been talked about for a few months. Here is where things stand currently.

In the next week or so, Ole Miss will choose from three candidates to lead a study on all areas of building a new facility. They are the three largest sports architectural firms in the world.

"We're hiring a sports architectural firm to help us go through a feasibility study," said Danny White, Ole Miss Senior Associate Athletics Director and Executive Director of the UMAA Foundation. "It's a 60 to 90 day process. We'll learn a lot of details (for a new arena). Different components of an arena can really affect the cost of the project. Ultimately we will come up with a finite number we feel like we can raise for the project. As we go through this, we need to learn if we can build a first-class facility that Ole Miss will be proud of for years to come that fits within that budget.

"The scope of the project, the (seating) capacity, things like that all need to be taken into consideration as we work through that," White continued. "Ultimately we don't feel we need a facility much larger, if at all larger, than Tad Smith."

Like Tad Smith Coliseum, a new facility will also be a convocation center for events like graduation, and also a place for activities, such as concerts.

"We want to build a basketball facility first," White said. "We've seen and heard feedback from the experts, the most successful projects went into it and completed it thinking basketball first. By far, the highest volume of events is going to be men's and women's basketball. We want to try to cater to those student-athletes, coaches, and fans as much as possible with this facility.

"We've engaged University administration outside of athletics to look at all facets of the University and to try to determine different ways we can fill needs for the student body and other areas. We have talked about concerts and building a facility that has the ability to host concerts is important. We are talking about those things, and we want to make sure it has the ability to do those type things. But as a second-tier purpose."

So it's basketball first. UMAA officials have toured some arenas and explored others and have found some things they like and would like to utilize here.

"We want to have an arena that gives us a competitive advantage (for basketball games), and we feel like we have that at Tad Smith right now in terms of the intimacy of the bowl," White said. "At the end of the day, we're looking to drastically improve the fan experience and create more pageantry around a basketball game, make it more of an event outside of the game. That's what we feel like a new facility can create."

White said Ole Miss needs to look no further than two other sports on its own campus to see what an event can become.

"We want this facility to be unique to Ole Miss," he said. "One thing we know about Ole Miss is we have the No. 1 tailgate atmosphere in the country in The Grove. We have the No. 1 college baseball atmosphere in the country with our baseball experience. We want to create the No. 1 basketball experience in the country. We realize it needs to be more than just the game. So we are looking very hard at unique and creative ways that we can provide more opportunities in that regard. To the general fan, we'd like to make it more available to the masses. We still have to work through all that.

"Our focus from a fan perspective and from a student perspective is to really try to create unique spaces that provide for social settings prior to the game, at halftime, and postgame."

White said the students and their experience is a major factor in the plans as well.

"If there is one thing I thought was a really unique idea," White said in looking at other arenas, in particular Auburn, "is the student experience there. Our student body is special. We feel like our student body drives the fan experience at football and baseball, and we want the same thing to happen at basketball.

"Auburn created a unique gate and concourse for their students with access to their student seating. It was really the first example of it that I had seen where an arena was built and there was a specific thought process and a very special setting for the students. So we want to take that idea and maybe even take it to another level with our facility."

An extensive food court in the facility that can be used on basketball game days as well as for students and visitors every day of the week is also something that is being heavily considered. Details of this have not been worked out, as with the other aspects of the project. But it will likely be encompassed into the plans and can be used for many more days than just events in the arena.

Andy Kennedy
A timeline on any ground-breaking or construction?

"It's hard to say right now," White said. "We'll know in the next two to three months a lot more, and we'll be prepared to talk more to that. It may be that we learn that we can't do this. We don't think that's going to be the case. But if the numbers don't look right and we can't figure out a way with very realistic forecasting to make this happen, then it won't happen. The funding and the scope of the project will determine if it is four years out or five years out. At this point for us, the best case scenario is looking at opening the doors for the 2015-16 season. But that is a date written in pencil."

Renovation of Tad Smith Coliseum appears to be out of the question. A new arena, whenever it is feasible to move forward, is the way things are headed.

White believes Ole Miss people will help to make this project happen.

"We're fortunate to have an alumni base that loves this place," he said. "That's something that has rung true with the success of the Vaught Society and something I believe will ring true with this much larger campaign. I think it's important to put our ducks in a row, to put a plan together that makes sense. We know the economy is going to turn at some point. This is a campaign, and if you go into something like this to fund a basketball arena, it takes two years just to build it. Obviously there is at least a year of planning to design the building and then there is fund-raising.

"We aren't looking at it necessarily as where the economy is today. We have to look at where the economy is going. And, as everyone knows, there's nowhere to go but up."

Location of a new arena, at least in the early stages, is supposed to be just east of the current coliseum, toward the football practice fields and on the tennis courts behind the Turner Center.

"The University master plan calls for it to be right along Hill Drive," said White, which is the street that runs just west of the football practice fields.

There has been some talk about a combination arena and student recreation center. Everything at this time is being explored, including that. But for now, the UMAA Foundation is moving ahead in its pursuit of the construction of a new arena.

Ole Miss Athletics Director Pete Boone said the time is right for looking into this.

"We're taking in the entire dynamics of the entire University and where it is right now, or better said how fast we've grown, especially our athletics department has grown in facilities. Just seeing the growth in the student population and seeing things all converging together, it gives us a good picture of our needs," he said. "The costs of maintenance of Tad Smith, all the issues are well-documented with it, and some not so well documented. It costs some 500 to 600 thousand dollars (a year) to maintain that facility. Any one thing might go out and it is 100 thousand dollars (additional to repair or replace).

"So the handwriting is on the wall that something had to be done. We felt like it was time to start pursuing it. And we are pursuing it from a Foundation standpoint. The University, when it's all said and done, will absolutely work together (with athletics) to help provide some of the needs that are out there for students as well as athletics. Right now we are pursuing it from a Foundation standpoint, trying to put the plan together where for the most part the Foundation will fully fund it."

Boone said the next few months should reveal some interesting details.

"What we're doing now is that over the next three to four months we'll meet with everyone from donors to ticket holders to students to student life administrators to University officials and athletics department officials, meet with all these constituents to find out what are the needs out there. Then we'll go from there."

Boone said there was always going to come a time that Tad Smith Coliseum's usefulness would be nearing its end.

"At some point, you'd have to say OK, it's time," he said. "That is what the leadership has had to do. Figure out the things that are the most needed, and regardless of the price tag, try to figure a way to make it happen."

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