University of Idaho President Chuck Staben, Athletic Director Rob Spear and Special Adviser to the President Michael Perry have worked quietly since summer 2015 on a 50-year-old idea.
The idea is to create a student space on campus, a middle ground between the International Ballroom of the Bruce Pitman Center and the Kibbie Dome.
The Idaho Arena will be a 4,700-seat arena, built on the north side of the Dome and offer a home base for volleyball and basketball. In addition, the arena could host lectures, concerts and other events.
At 4,700-5,000 seats, the arena would be smaller than regional venues. Beasely Coliseum at Washington State University seats more than 11,000, Montana State’s Washington Arena has more than 7,000 seats and Reese Court at Eastern Washington University has 6,000 seats.
There will be a main gym, practice gym, conference space and offices inside the building.
The building will be constructed using Idaho wood and Idaho-based contractors.
“The wood industry is thirsting for a project that size,” Perry said. “There are regulations right now that say, ‘If you’re going to build a building, it can’t go over five stories with wood. It’s partly fire protection, other things along that line.”
Perry said the arena will show off the versatility of the wood.
Staben said discussions about building an arena began back in 1969, but he is confident the arena will finally be built this time.
“We’re resolved, we’re going to do it,” Staben told Moscow High School students in October. “We’re going to get the money and we’re going to do it. You’ll get to go to a game there in 2020.”
The quiet phase
Perry works on special projects for Staben. His first assignment was the arena. Perry and Staben began working on the project in August 2015.
“We finally have a president who has embraced it, embraced it for all the right reasons,” Perry said.
Perry said he has been working with donors to reach about half of the project’s cost since then.
“If you can’t get to about the halfway point in your private, quiet phase, you’re not going to see success,” he said. “It’s too big a hill to climb. Once you get into the (30-60 percent) range, you’re going to be OK.”
Perry said $15 million has been put toward the project in private donations. The project’s full price tag is $30 million.
Spear said the price won’t go down — it could rise depending on final costs.
“We think $30 million is the bare minimum,” he said. “If anything, we want to be so successful fundraising so if it goes to $35 (million), we have that option to handle it.”
Staben set a goal to increase enrollment at UI by 50 percent by 2025. Perry said creating a vibrant, residential campus will help Staben reach this goal.
Perry acknowledged the various other things UI needs on campus, but said he can’t think of a better venue that is as versatile as the arena.
The arena will give the university a medium-sized facility for games and other entertainment events.
“As we went through the preliminary planning process, we found out that a lot of the bands that are popular in this day and age like to play in smaller venues,” Spear said. “They don’t like to play in 10,000 or 12,000-seat facilities. It’ll be a niche building.”
The size allows enough seats to feel full, while creating demand for seats, Spear said.
Director of Architecture and Engineering Services Ran Pankopf said there are still many questions regarding the arena.
“Where we’re at this point is we have a sight selected,” he said. “We know we want to do an arena at that site. There’s a lot of open space to it, but we haven’t the architectural design yet.”
Pankopf said there won’t be any parking spaces lost at the Dome. However, there is a chance some RV spots could disappear.
“We’re building on top of, what is today, a very underutilized recreational field,” he said. “So underutilized to a point they put the Idaho Fan Zone tailgating area out there and left the gravel down. That’s being used as an RV spot. I assume that when the arena goes down, that temporary gravel pad … will come away.”
Pankopf said the budget is tight and limits any exterior development projects.
“If the budget were to be expanded and if there is some sort of exterior entry plaza or anything like that, there might be some small loss in parking,” he said.
50 years in the making
On Spear’s desk, a spiral-bound, mustard yellow booklet holds drawings for several combinations of potential facilities.
The idea for an arena was introduced in the 1950s. Instead of building several spaces, the university opted to only build a domed stadium.
Pankopf said the planning began in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s and a 1972 plan showed an 8-10,000-seat arena.
In 1983, plans were built for an addition to the east end of the Dome. The addition is now the Vandal Athletic Center, home to a weight room and strength and conditioning program.
“That was built in 1983 when it became obvious the university didn’t have the funds to do a giant arena,” he said. “The east end was the compromise.”
The first time Pankopf saw serious consideration for an arena was in 1997 with the sports recreation special events master plan.
“That master plan was the plan that led to the Student Recreation Center,” he said. “As part of that master planning effort, there was this notion of building some kind of arena.”
In 2004, Pankopf said the department focused in a project for the Dome, which culminated in renovations done from 2009-2011.That plan showed the addition of an arena.
“It’s been something that’s been on the university’s thought process for a number of years,” he said. “I think it all goes back to recognition that Memorial Gym is too small and too costly to renovate.”
The Memorial Gym currently hosts all home volleyball games and the first two months of basketball season. The 12,000 square-foot building opened in 1928 and was renovated in 1954.
To make the 2,500-person capacity arena work for larger crowds, Pankopf said it would need serious reworking once again.
“That’s problematic, because the gym is on the historic register,” he said. “Trying to get about (2,500) persons in there and not being disrespectful or changing the gym … would be really, really difficult.”
Moving basketball into a separate facility clears the Kibbie Dome for other sports and activity groups.
“You’re going to have a period from December on, where basketball won’t be set up,” Spear said. “It will give that entity and the Dome to attract other types of events.”
The Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival, which usually disrupts the basketball schedule, would have exclusive use of the Dome floor during the event.
School of Journalism and Mass Media faculty member Kenton Bird said he likes the idea of a medium-sized venue on campus.
“I like the idea of something that’s bigger than the SUB Ballroom but not as big as the Kibbie Dome to have lectures, to have concerts, some public events,” he said.
Associate Director of Competitive and Recreational Sports Butch Fealy said he thinks the arena will give club and intramural teams more gym time.
“I don’t know impact-wise how it will affect (Campus Recreation),” he said. “What I think it will do is relieve stress on Memorial Gym and the large and small PEB to give students more opportunities for recreational activities. Gym space is pretty tight all across campus, especially come October, November when volleyball and basketball are both in season.”
Junior Paden Putnam supports the project because he said it will give students unique opportunities.
“At college is when I’m the most active because those opportunities are available,” he said. “I get to go rock climbing and play racquetball and basketball. I don’t have access to that at home, and it’s neat to have that available.”
Putnam said he hasn’t been to any Idaho basketball games, but he said a new arena would sway him into attending one.
Senior Keegan Russell said he supports the project, but there are other buildings on campus that need attention as well.
“I’m an art major, and we get stuck in the basement with crappy lighting,” he said. “In the winter it gets cold (in the classrooms), but other it’s not that much of a downfall.”
Russell said the investment could be beneficial for basketball.
“We’ve invested in our football program and they’re doing better this year,” he said. “Why not pour (money) into basketball?”
Sophomore Ryder Magnaghi agreed some places on campus could use work.
“I don’t think it should take away from the Idaho Arena,” he said. “I think that’s the priority.”
Colton Clark, Brandon Hill, Ella Fredericks and Mihaela Karst contributed to this report.
Tess Fox can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @tesstakesphotos