Talking Facilities

Ole Miss is moving on in the facilities race. The Rebels continue to take steps to upgrade major sports venues and training facilities. The Manning Center upgrades and renovations are basically completed, with mostly cosmetic touches to be finalized.

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The parking garage on the location of the northern-most football practice field that will be adjacent to the new basketball arena is underway.

The arena construction will begin later this spring or early summer. Vaught-Hemingway Stadium renovations and upgrades are in the planning stages and are discussed in daily athletic meetings.

Ole Miss athletics director Ross Bjork said things have to work in the proper order to get such large projects planned and completed.

"You go from the concept phase, which gets people excited and helps you raise money and generates interest in the project. Then you obviously have to raise money. In the meantime you're going through a design process. We went through the concept phase in 2011, but we never were able to engage the design process, because we had to continue to raise money."

That date of 2011 was even before Bjork and the current leadership team for Ole Miss athletics was in place. They have taken over the Forward Together campaign and evaluated everything about it, which any set of new leaders would have done. In the past two years since his arrival, it's been a major work in progress to continue to explore all avenues.

The Manning Center, formerly known as the Indoor Practice Facility, has been a major project that has upgraded that ten-year-old facility to an even higher standard, with new team meeting room, new head football coach's office, upgraded locker room, expanded weight room, and a new training table also known as the Grill at 1810 that's open to the public.

The focus, already on other projects as well, now shifts in a rapid way to the arena and the football stadium upgrades. The parking garage construction is currently ongoing, with early work already visible in that area of campus. Hill Drive, which runs from All-American Drive (formerly known as Fraternity Row) near the Haley Barbour Center for Manufacturing Excellence, is closed all the way to the end of the current football practice fields and will be for an extended period of constriction time. That street will be permanently rerouted west nearer the Turner Center.

The Rebel Shop next to the stadium is empty and is about to be demolished. The parking lot behind the Rebel Shop and west of the football stadium is currently being demolished. The fencing that will surround the new arena construction site is already in place as of last week.

Some people among the fanbase seem to believe one project must be finished before another begins. This entire campaign, Forward Together, has plans that overlap, from designs and approval and fundraising. Nothing stands alone in that regard.

"Because our fundraising has gone well, because things have progressed with the arena work starting in March, it allowed us to continue to raise money, which allowed us to continue to plan the football stadium and the other projects that will go with that. And then get that approved by the IHL."

AECOM, which was the design team for the new arena, has been selected for the football stadium upgrades.

"The IHL approved us being able to hire an architect," Bjork said of the state college board which governs all activity of Mississippi's eight universities. "That's really the official step that has to occur on any project. That's the first time we've taken that step on our football stadium project since everything was launched in 2011.

New arena location prep work is underway
File Photo

"That was an important step. It was the same thing that happened when we got the arena approved by the IHL. It's the exact same process that has to happen with any project on our campus. This allows us to really make everything official from a design perspective and a cost analysis perspective to know what we can and will build. Now we can really determine what it will look like, how big is it, when can we build it, and how much it will cost. That's the most important thing, to make sure we all can afford this. Now we can move ahead."

When Bjork arrived as athletics director in the spring of 2012, almost two years ago, the campaign had been launched but was in an extremely early phase.

"In the fall of 2011, nothing was presented to the IHL," he said. "When you present concepts to the public, that does not require IHL approval. It's when you get down to hiring a design consultant to do the schematic design, the design development, and ultimately the construction drawings, that's where you have to engage the official process through IHL.

"The fall of 2011 allowed the campaign to launch. It allowed ideas to be out there to see what's possible, to be able to build for our football stadium and our basketball arena. We arrived and said, ‘How much does this cost?' We didn't have cost information at that time. Can we tear down the FedEx and Starnes buildings? And the answer came back that it's going to cost about eight million dollars of cash on the table right now (to do that), and right now that money is not available. That money is going to the Manning Center. That money is going to the basketball arena. So that had to be taken into account. And you had the historical building (Doc Knight Field House portion of Starnes Center/FedEx Center). So that's another factor we had to analyze and work through."

Bjork said there was indeed consideration given to eliminating those buildings on the northwest and north areas of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. They had to explore everything before acting.

"It wasn't as simple as tearing down those buildings and putting on the north side what's on the south side (of the football stadium)," he said. "It wasn't that simple. So we had to take a step back and analyze all those components to be able to say ‘What's right for Ole Miss? What's right for our athletics program?' So as we went along, we said we believe there is a better way to build this in phases, build this as they come, if you will, and really pace the growth of our stadium with our demand and the growth of the program. I believe, and others have said the same thing, that this is the right approach based on stadium capacities and demand for tickets."

Bjork said Ole Miss football continues to grow, on the field, off the field, in facilities, in visibility, and with ticket sales and attendance.

"Our attendance is up the last few years, and we hope it continues to go that way," he said as the Rebels prepare for another football season with ticket information already out in the public's hands. "But we also know TV is pretty attractive. We also know we have the SEC Network. We also know we've got to monitor our price. We took all those things into account."

Bjork and his support team of administrators and advisors have logged many hours of evaluation and study for all the projects Ole Miss has finished or is in the process of building. Only two years in now, the vision they have is more clear for the future of Rebel athletics, especially when it comes to the venues and training facilities.

"There was change in leadership, a change in a little bit of vision to analyze what's best," he said. "And really to put it into a master plan not only for football but for all our sports. So I believe we've taken those prudent steps to analyze all the factors that go into it. Now we can continue to develop that plan."

(Part II of this story coming Monday.)

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