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University of Akron studies future of Rhodes Arena

By admin Published: February 15, 2012

University of Akron officials quietly are studying the basketball arena with an eye toward remodeling it or scuttling it entirely for a new facility.

UA is working with Populous Inc. of Kansas City, Mo., to determine how much it might cost to fix flaws in the 29-year-old James A. Rhodes Health and Physical Education Building.

Ted Curtis, vice president for capital planning and facilities management, said he would meet with UA athletic officials in coming weeks about early findings from the $49,500 feasibility study. He declined to provide details.

''Right now I can see that this would go in five or six directions,'' Curtis said. ''This is so early. They've given us direction, but we don't know if that's what we want to do.''

UA officials spent a decade studying the aging Rubber Bowl, located about seven miles from campus, before concluding it would cost almost as much to remodel it as to build a new facility. That led to construction of the $61.6 million InfoCision Stadium in 2009.

Criticism of Rhodes Arena has been rampant for years.

In the early 1980s, state support for the project was cut, dramatically reducing the arena's size to 129,500 square feet. Trustees named the facility for then-Gov. James A. Rhodes, who had helped secure $12 million in funding; that irritated people who thought the facility should have been named for an athletic leader.

Curtis, who was not employed at UA when the arena was built, said the facility is not ''a top-level intercollegiate basketball facility. Probably at the time [it was built] it was close, but I don't think it had all the answers.''

He said the collapsible bleachers do not expand all the way, and sight lines are poor in some parts of the arena.

Athletic Director Tom Wistrcill said he was not unhappy with the number of seats in the arena, 5,500, but there is ''no way to change the bleacher seats to chair backs like we want and keep 5,500,'' he said.

Curtis also said the arena may need loges with food service and club seating.

''Solutions may include renovation and expansion of the existing arena, or demolition and construction of a new arena if modification of the existing facility is not practicable,'' the university told prospective bidders last year on the scope of the feasibility study.

The fledgling study has been under close wraps. Even UA President Luis Proenza has not seen the initial recommendations, Curtis said.

Nor has Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic, who said Monday he is disappointed that UA officials are studying the future arena without input from other government agencies or the business community.

Plusquellic said two previous studies of a football and basketball stadium involved outside groups. The first looked at a possible combined football and basketball facility, which ended up with the plan for a football stadium only, while the second focused on a basketball arena.

The mayor also said that some UA leaders think a new basketball arena should be on campus, but that some local government and government officials have been pushing for years for a downtown location, possibly across from Canal Park, where the Akron Aeros play minor-league baseball.

A downtown location would get more use than a campus arena, Plusquellic said. The arena now is on the east side of campus, near InfoCision Stadium but far from downtown restaurants and parking.

UA spokeswoman Eileen Korey cautioned that the Populous contract is for only a ''preliminary feasibility study.''

''We continue in discussions with the city about the building of a future arena,'' she said in an email. ''Renovations to the JAR involve far more than a basketball court, since classrooms and office space are part of the facility. No decisions have yet been made.''

As for cost, UA officials said they didn't know because the project is so up in the air. But if the project comes to pass, it could require a ''very aggressive fundraising campaign,'' Wistrcill said.

Bowling Green State University last year unveiled a new convocation center and arena that cost $36 million.

In the meantime, UA basketball coach Keith Dambrot said he would welcome a facility that is ''fan-friendly, team-friendly, in the sense of you want your fans right on the floor so they could really be into the game.''

A new arena would enhance the program, Dambrot said, and aid in recruiting.

''Until it gets serious, I just have to coach my team and play within the facility we have,'' he said. ''I don't think they're at the serious level of doing something.''

Carol Biliczky can be reached at 330-996-3729 or cbiliczky@thebeaconjournal.com. Beacon Journal reporters George Thomas and Stephanie Warsmith contributed to this story.

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