ORONO, Maine — The University of Maine hopes to begin work on the first phase of its field house and Memorial Gym renovation project in April 2013.
In the meantime, university officials are consulting with the architectural firm, SMRT Inc. of Portland, to establish what upgrades can be performed within the budget.
UMaine is planning for, among other amenities, a basketball facility that will seat approximately 1,750 fans in the gym, which is also known as “The Pit.”
UMaine Director of Athletics Steve Abbott said the university has raised $13.9 million of the initial $14 million needed to begin the extensive work on the buildings that are the hub of the athletics department.
Abbott is part of an eight-member committee, which includes six UMaine employees and two community representatives, that has been meeting with SMRT Inc. every two weeks to determine the scope of the project.
”It’s a matter of prioritizing but it’s also the architects, and engineers that we have at the university, who have been painstakingly going over the physical structure of the two buildings to try to figure out what is possible for a reasonable price,” Abbott said.
Abbott said the work will be performed in two stages, starting with the field house and indoor track, which is used by community groups and the university. It will include the removal of asbestos and mercury in the building.
Former Gov. John Baldacci helped facilitate Legislative approval of a $7 million state bond to address public health and safety and compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act in the facility.
Abbott said the field house renovations should begin in a year. If all goes well, the work on the adjacent Memorial Gym would then start sometime in late 2013 or early 2014.
“That would mean the track finishes in ’13 and the gym finishes in ’14,” Abbott said. “I’d hope to play some [basketball] games in [Memorial Gym] during the ’13-14 season, but that’s going to depend on how much structural work we have to do.”
Abbott and the committee have some tough decisions to make about improvements to the gym and surrounding areas. The building is almost 80 years old and presents the architects with challenges and limitations because of its design.
UMaine’s gymnasium plan is likely to call for 1,500-2,000 seats, which is significantly less than the capacity of 3,000 envisioned when the renovations were first proposed in 2006.
Abbott, who initially supported a larger venue, said trying to increase the gym’s estimated capacity of 1,300 by another 1,700 seats would be cost-prohibitive and unnecessary.
He pointed to the construction of the new arena in Bangor, which is expected to open in late 2013 and accommodate up to 5,000 fans for basketball, as a key reason to keep Memorial Gym more cozy.
“Because of the vote and the action the city of Bangor has taken, there just isn’t the need for that kind of [large] facility [in Orono],” Abbott said.
When asked what UMaine would do if its basketball programs began attracting crowds above 1,700 — as was routinely the case when Clinton’s Cindy Blodgett starred for the women’s team from 1994-98 — Abbott said Alfond Arena and the Bangor arena would be viable options.
“I hope that’s a dilemma that we have to deal with,” Abbott said. “We could take advantage of other facilities. For me that would only make sense, rather than overbuild for the possibility and delay the project because we wouldn’t have enough money and want it to be bigger.”
Abbott emphasized that the gym is a key concern, but not the only one, in the scope of the project. UMaine needs more and better locker rooms for student-athletes and office space for its coaches and staff members.
“The improvements to coaches offices and locker rooms and administrative offices are extremely important to the future of the athletic department and all those projects are part of this as well,” said Abbott, who pointed out a handful of employees have for several years worked in a trailer behind the field house.
While fundraising has essentially been on hold in the last few months, Abbott hopes UMaine can generate more money to facilitate more comprehensive improvements. That includes trying to take advantage of an additional $2 million in matching funds offered by New Balance, which donated $5 million for naming rights to the field house and student recreation center.
Abbott is confident the planning is moving along smoothly as UMaine weighs its options on how to proceed.
“I feel like over the past month we’ve had some good breakthroughs in terms of how to approach things logistically,” Abbott said.
The building committee wants to help facilitate a revamped Memorial Gym and field house complex that provides modern amenities and functionality while maintaining the building’s character.
“It’s a historic building that has a very important location and role on the campus, tying together the academic and athletic facilities that we have,” Abbott said.
“Our goal when this is done is for people who walk into this building to be proud of it as the centerpiece of our athletic facilities.”