Talking Facilities II

With so many projects on the table, Ole Miss athletics director Ross Bjork is a busy man. Everywhere you look there is something going on. And that is a good thing.

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But there are steps an athletics department must take when it decides on major projects as Ole Miss has done. The IHL board is involved.

"We can have concepts and talk about concepts all day long without getting official architect design firm approval from the IHL," Bjork said. "Then after you get the architects approved, then they want you to go through the design process. Then the IHL has to approve the exterior look of the building to make sure it fits within the campus landscape.

"There are three layers: they approve the design consultant, they approve your project plan – how are you going to fund it and the financing behind it - and then they approve the exterior."

AECOM is the architectural firm for both the new arena and the upgrades to Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Bjork said everything to this point is full go, and much visible work is already taking place.

"Everything is moving ahead," he said. "We have the big hole in the ground (for the parking garage). Everything is proceeding with that project. The weekend of spring break (just completed), we will start laying the construction fence (that is actually now completed) around the movement of Hill Drive.

"Hill Drive is going to move to the west and connect with the intersection where the observatory is. They'll start scraping the parking lot where the new arena will go (it has also begun). The Rebel Shop will come down right around that time frame as well. And they'll start digging the hole on the arena project."

Bjork explains a few other aspects of the projects now in progress.

Parking Garage Construction
Bruce Newman

"Yates Construction has the garage and the site excavation work on Hill Drive and the parking lot," he said. "The arena will be bid out separately, and that bid will go out in April. It will be awarded the first week of June, and they'll start proceeding on the arena components in June."

The plan remains to open the new arena in January, 2016. That will obviously mean some swift work on a large building that will house close to 10,000 people when it's packed.

"The plan is to actually have a soft opening in late 2015 and start SEC play in January of 2016 in the new arena," Bjork said. "It's about a 20-month process from the time they start working on the site to opening."

As stated above, the site work on the arena location has begun.

"The (parking) garage is supposed to be open the first day of fall class (this August)," he said. "That's the goal. We have a football game the third week of the season (hosting Louisiana-Lafayette in game three after games in Atlanta against Boise State and in Nashville against Vanderbilt). But obviously it needs to be up and running for the first day of class."

Plans for the usage of the arena are for much more than just basketball games for the Ole Miss men's and women's teams. Graduation, concerts, any number of events can be held there. And it will be used almost daily in some areas.

"The arena will be open Monday through Friday with a food court for students, faculty, staff, and visitors," Bjork said. "The campus is growing in terms of more people. We need more dining outlets on campus. We were able to create that in the north end of our new basketball arena.

"Parking is a premium. So attaching the parking garage came into play as well. All this fits into the master plan of the university and the master plan of athletics."

Bjork has been an advocate of the current location for the arena for several months. He likes where it will be built. He likes everything close together for a number of reasons.

"To me, that's what Ole Miss is all about – connectivity socially, connectivity on game day, and the spiritual feeling that we have around this place. That's really what drove the location," he said.

And he likes the new design, which is the look of a field house that many cities and schools of this era are going to when constructing new arenas.

Arena location behind Rebel Shop taken from atop the football stadium
Bruce Newman

"It was a combination of the feeling that this is an athletic venue but also a multi-purpose venue. You have a bigger lobby on the north side but you also have the truss system in the roof which gives you the field house feel when you're on the inside of the building. Obviously we wanted a tight seating bowl. The original design had a tight seating bowl. But the exterior looked more like an academic building. The arena now looks like an arena and a multi-purpose pavilion space you can gather for graduation but also a basketball game. That was one of our goals when we looked at the design and the location."

As far as the football stadium upgrades and expansion, Bjork said there is excitement there. And Ole Miss fans are stepping up.

"We've got deposits and sold commitments on 30 (new) suites," he said. "What we're looking at is putting the suites in the south end zone, right below the current club section, at the top of the seating bowl."

Part of the reasoning there is so many amenities are already in the south end zone and won't need to be duplicated in the north.

"We've already got elevators. We've already got the kitchen located down there. We've already got a lot of infrastructure down there. We will include widening the concourse on the mid-level down there and adding more restrooms and concessions for all of our fans in the south end zone."

As for the north end zone being bowled in with a permanent structure rather than the bleachers that have been there for more than 30 years, Bjork is excited to be able to move forward on that.

"We will have a club lounge in the north end zone underneath the stadium with a view of the field level and with seats at field level," he said.

"The rest will be regular seating bowl seats in the north end zone. That would be right up against the scoreboard. That would be one phase – south end zone suites and north end zone seating bowl and club lounge at field level.

"So that gives us flexibility down the road if we ever have the need to expand (the north end zone). We can do that in the north down the road. Building it as demand in our program continues to grow."

Although the large bleacher section will be removed, the stadium's seating capacity, which is currently listed at 60,580, will be increased with the new north end zone structure.

"The net increase is still being evaluated," Bjork said. "That is still to be determined. It will be a definite increase by several thousand in the first phase. The goal is to try to get even more than that."

By first phase, Bjork means what has been listed above. Another phase would be additional seating of some type into the future, which is obviously not yet determined.

"We meet and discuss these projects every day," he said. "Depending on how some fund-raising goes this spring, depending on some other design elements that might give us more premium seats, we could start (football stadium) components as early as 2014 – at the end of this season. If not, then it would obviously be later. We want to show improvement every year and get this project off the ground. So the exact timeline is still to be determined.

Another view of arena locale from atop the football stadium
Bruce Newman

"But we're confident that we'll have football (stadium upgrades/expansion) going on during the same time as the basketball arena is being built. It could be toward the end. It could be at the start. We're not sure yet. We'll have to go through this spring to see where we land, both in design and the logistics around all the staging of moving all these different parts – weight rooms, training rooms, expanding our academic center, making sure we never shut down. That's why we have to hire the architect so we can really dive into these discussions and get the final answers. We've been sitting down with them, and we have the official approval."

Consideration also has to be given to the interior and usage of buildings like the Starnes Center, the FedEx Academic Center, and the Gillom Center. All are affected by the ongoing projects.

"The teams that operate in the training room and the weight room at the Starnes building are teams that are for the most part housed at the Gillom Center," he said, meaning sports such as soccer, volleyball, softball, etc. "So we're looking at expanding the Gillom Center with a weight room, a training room, a film room, and giving more resources to that building. There may be a few more teams that have to adjust where they work out. We just expanded the Manning Center weight room, so we have plenty of room there. We can schedule accordingly.

"We know we want to expand the Gillom Center and dress up the exterior of that building. The Gillom center is definitely a part of all these discussions and all these plans."

A Hall of Fame and Museum for Ole Miss sports has been talked about for more than two decades. Bjork said one will be a part of the new plans.

"We'll definitely have a Hall of Fame in that quadrant, whether it's in the current FedEx Building or the Starnes Building. We want the Hall of Fame in that part of this campus."

Bjork said the east and west sides of the stadium are under consideration for upgrades. But nothing is firm on those yet.

"The plan on the north end zone is to make the elements consistent with how we are on the south in terms of the stone, the cast concrete, the red brick. Then we'll have to look at the east and west sometime to bring those sides up to the same standard as the south. That's part of the master plan. It may not happen in this phase as far as the east and west, but it definitely will with the north."

Fans could still see some things happen on the east and west sides of the stadium soon.

"The east side Rebel Club will have some minor upgrades but structurally will remain pretty much the same," Bjork said. "On the west side, we're looking at some major structural changes, maybe adding a level (to the current press box/suites) and adding some more suites on that side as well. But that's all a part of the study we're doing. Hopefully that is part of the initial phase."

But that aspect as well as all these projects need one thing above all else: money. Bjork said fundraising continues. As of early March, the figure in the Forward Together campaign that had been raised was $106 million.

"We hope we can close on other things in the spring and the summer. We feel really good about fund-raising. We had a record cash year at the end of fiscal year 2013. We're right on track this year. People are giving, they're responding, our memberships are up, our gifts are up, and the campaign is going well.

"The goals remain the same – expand the (football) stadium, add premium seats, and make it look better on the exterior," Bjork continued. "The fundamentals of the campaign are the same. How we get there, how we pay for it, all those things, they can change based on leadership, based on dynamics, based on existing conditions. We've had a chance to really study those things and that's where we are now. We're proceeding and moving ahead."

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