ORONO, Maine — Ever since the University of Maine athletics department announced its proposal to renovate Memorial Gymnasium, it has been searching for ways to convert the outdated structure into a suitable, modern basketball facility.
What UMaine officials have discovered is that undertaking that portion of what is now a more extensive project that includes the field house is not only complicated, but increasingly expensive.
Providing Black Bear basketball teams with an upgraded facility in which to practice and play their home games was a key goal in the original plan. Now, it looks as though that will not happen.
“We had hoped to renovate ‘The Pit’ and turn it into a modern basketball arena,” said UMaine Athletics Director Steve Abbott. “That’s proved to be far more complex than we appreciated and far more expensive than we anticipated.”
UMaine has raised $14 million for a comprehensive renovation of the field house and the adjoining Memorial Gym building, which houses not only the basketball court but locker rooms and the offices of numerous Black Bear coaches and administrators, along with the athletic training facility.
Abbott said the $14 million is not even close to what would be needed to complete the original goals of the project, the gym renovation in particular. He admitted UMaine does not have a handle on the projected final costs.
“At this point, the plans are too immature to say it’s over [the $14 million] by X amount or Y amount,” Abbott said. “We didn’t really have a [definitive] base amount to begin with.”
Abbott said he and his staff have tried to make sure everyone involved in the process, including donors, sponsors and fans, are kept abreast of developments. Some are not happy.
“I’m very disappointed that the gym, the home court, is not being done,” said former UMaine men’s basketball coach Skip Chappelle, who is under the impression the gym overhaul has been scrapped completely.
Chappelle, who has been active behind the scenes trying to generate financial support and momentum for the project, would not comment further.
The field house was completed in 1926 and Memorial Gym was finished in 1933. Abbott said the age of the buildings means many costly upgrades must be performed because of safety, health and building code considerations.
“Those are things where we don’t have an option,” Abbott said. “It’s got to be done in order to have the building continue to function.”
Among unanticipated costs, Abbott cited replacing the steel support columns inside the gym. They potentially obstruct the view of many basketball fans.
The original estimate for that work was $2 million, but test borings performed by engineers discovered the pilings would have to be sunk 15 feet into a rock ledge under the building — at an increased cost of $5 million.
Such discoveries will not prevent UMaine from making many other significant upgrades to the gym building.
“In terms of the locker rooms, the coaches’ offices, the administration space, the practice facilities, the training facilities — all that stuff we’re close to getting a handle on — but the basketball competition facility is proving to be more complex and more expensive than anybody anticipated when we started looking into it.”
Abbott said UMaine will continue to explore all options in regard to establishing a game venue for basketball. They include maintaining the status quo, in which the Black Bears practice in Memorial Gym and play the majority of their home games at Alfond Arena, with a few in “The Pit.”
He said renovating Memorial Gym for basketball is still a consideration.
“The question is, can we get the value that we want out of that limited amount of money for the basketball facility?” Abbott said.
Other possibilities include building a standalone basketball facility on campus or playing in the new Cross Insurance Center in Bangor, which is scheduled to open in the fall of 2013.
Abbott said putting up a new building is accompanied by other long-term costs such as heat, maintenance and staffing.
“That’s extremely expensive,” he said.
The goal for UMaine officials is to make a decision on how to proceed by the end of December, but Abbott said there are still a lot of unanswered questions.
“My goal with the Memorial Gym project is that the building preserves the historical quality and place that it’s served on this campus since 1933 but at the same time fulfills our needs for a modern Division I athletic program,” Abbott said. “At this point, we have not settled on an approach to satisfy those goals.”
Plans for the field house renovations appear to be solidified. Abbott said work is expected to begin in April 2013 and be completed sometime in the fall of the same year.
The tentative plan for the Memorial Gym building calls for construction to be completed by the fall of 2014.
Former Gov. John Baldacci was instrumental in securing for UMaine a $7 million state bond to assist in the renovations. Some of that money is earmarked for the removal of old flooring in the field house and track that contains mercury, along with the remediation of asbestos in the facility.
Abbott said approximately $2 million of a $5 million gift from shoe manufacturer New Balance will be used for the field house upgrades. The Alfond Foundation also has pledged $2 million in matching funds for the gym project.