There's been talk for a decade, perhaps more, about an overhaul of Assembly Hall, the landmark on the University of Illinois campus that will turn 49 early next month.
CHAMPAIGN -- There's been talk for a decade, perhaps more, about an overhaul of Assembly Hall, the landmark on the University of Illinois campus that will turn 49 early next month.
Former athletic director Ron Guenther floated several ideas, including the possibility of displacing the Illini for a season and rebuilding the seating configuration inside a building considered an architectural marvel by campus administration.
Hired by Illinois in August to fill the vacancy created by Guenther's abrupt retirement, Mike Thomas met Tuesday with the architectural and engineering firm hired to draw up the plans for the project after hearing the wish list from athletic department and campus officials.
"There are different steps along the way than need to be approved, but this is a very significant step,'' Thomas said. "Once we get the appropriate design in place and the acceptable funding model, then we'll be in a good place to make it reality.''
Make no mistake. The privately funded project is full speed ahead.
"The university is very supportive of this project,'' Thomas said. "It's our job to put a plan in place that makes sense and we can afford.''
Although Thomas hinted the final price tag might be lower than the estimates of $150 million speculated earlier, the meeting Tuesday was his first with the engineers. Other campus officials also met with the firm, because the building is a multi-use facility, but the athletic department would presumably get priority because men's and women's basketball are the primary tenants.
AECOM, formerly Ellerbe Becket, was hired at a cost of $2.2 million to design the plans Thomas and the university will take to possible donors to help fund the project.
Thomas had no dates for breaking ground or completion. After receiving the schematic design in late summer, Thomas would continue work on securing a major donor.
"This is something tangible we can take to the streets to get people excited about the project,'' Thomas said.
Illinois may ask between one-third and one-half of the project for naming rights. At that point, Thomas would take the project to the board for final approval.
Thomas' impending decision with the future of basketball coach Bruce Weber and the direction of the program become big news, and Thomas will likely use his strategy there to promote fundraising in the Assembly Hall project. The cost of the project makes this the biggest priority on Thomas' desk.
"I'm excited that it's in front of us,'' Thomas said.
In his meetings, Thomas will make some requests:
-- A fan-friendly, customer-friendly building at point of sale with added concession space, merchandise areas and restrooms. Enlarging the hallways is a must. Pods may be used for extra space.
"Sometimes there's more contact out in the concourses than on the court,'' he said.
Thomas and his staff have been touring other new buildings and renovations to determine ideas that work and don't work. Thomas has no desire to displace Illini basketball during the project.
-- A renovation that gives the Illini "a real home court advantage,'' Thomas said.
He wants more students close to the floor, so lowering the floor is still a priority. That would allow students to stand without blocking the view of fans seated behind them. The seating bowl may also change.
-- Premium seating opportunities. Speculation on the number of luxury suites has fluctuated from 12 to 16, although one industry newsletter suggested 20.
Club and loge seating may involve entry to a lounge outside the competition arena. Premium seating would pay for a bulk of the project.
-- The project has to have a "wow factor'' to engage fans.
"When you look at other facilities across the country, people are talking about the University of Illinois,'' Thomas said.
One necessity, he said, is air conditioning.
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnSupinie.