UA regents approve new $109 million sports arena at UAA

Beth Bragg

Groundbreaking for UAA's $109 million on-campus sports arena could happen this summer, the school's vice chancellor for administrative services said Friday after the University of Alaska's Board of Regents approved the project at a meeting in Fairbanks.

The lone hurdle following the board's 9-1 vote is a potential veto by Gov. Sean Parnell. About a third of the project's funding -- $34 million -- would come from the capital budget passed by the Legislature, which still awaits Parnell's signature.

But a veto won't doom the project, said Bill Spindle, UAA's vice chancellor for administrative services.

"We're waiting to see what the governor does, but no matter what he does, we're going to begin the design process. Our goal is to have this built by the summer of 2014," he said.

The new arena will sit on 20 acres east of Providence Alaska Medical Center, near the intersection of Elmore Road and Providence Drive. It will include a main gym that will seat about 5,600 spectators and will be big enough to be divided into three courts, plus an auxiliary gym that can be divided into two courts and will be used for intramurals and events like dances, Spindle said.

The parking lot will accommodate 800 cars and an agreement already in place with Providence will allow the hospital to use the arena parking lot during the day and the school to use nearby hospital lots at night, Spindle said.

The arena will replace the school's aging Wells Fargo Sports Complex, which opened in 1978 -- right after UAA joined the NCAA. Plans for that building are uncertain, UAA athletic director Steve Cobb said.

The Seawolves long ago outgrew the Sports Complex, which has one gym floor, seats about 1,000 and was designed to be a recreation center for a community college. It's no bigger than most of the high school gyms in the city.

"We're the only school I know of that only has access to one gym floor," Cobb said. "When compared to our sister institutions, we're just woefully behind."

The new arena will be home to 11 of UAA's 12 teams. Sullivan Arena, which seats about 6,500 for hockey and more for basketball, would remain the home of UAA hockey and the Great Alaska Shootout. The new arena won't include an ice rink, and UAA officials are optimistic that the Shootout, which hasn't had a sellout in years, will return to the glory days when the basketball tournament filled Sullivan.

At some point, Spindle said, the school may consider the idea of a second arena for hockey.

"We have not abandoned the idea of a hockey rink on campus," he said. "At one point we had two arenas in mind, but it was just too expensive."

The idea for a new arena goes back at least to 2007, when a capital-budget allocation of $1 million for planning was vetoed by former Gov. Sarah Palin.

Undaunted, UAA ramped up efforts to raise awareness about the cramped quarters at the Sports Complex.

Administrators found a champion in Fran Ulmer, who became UAA's chancellor in the spring of 2007, right after Palin's veto; her efforts to win support for the arena landed her in the Seawolf Hall of Fame last year. Sen. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, and Rep. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, provided help in Juneau. And community support came in the form of the "Complete the Arena" committee, created in 2008 after a capital-budget allocation of $15 million for a new arena was approved by the governor. Its key members included longtime sports advocates Don Winchester and Steve Nerland.

Nerland later became chairman of the Proposition B committee, which pushed for voter approval of a $397 million general-obligation bond that included $60 million for a new arena. Voters passed the bond last year.

"Communities need good sports facilities," Nerland said. A bigger on-campus facility could host graduations, concerts and other events besides sports and could provide UAA with an effective recruiting tool, he said.

Also in 2008, UAA was hit with a Title IX lawsuit that alleged inequitable facilities for the women's teams, some of which were sharing locker rooms built for a single team because the school has more teams and athletes than it has space for.

The lawsuit forced the athletic department to make some immediate changes. But it also served as evidence that the athletic department had outgrown the current sports center.

"At that point, people wanted to hear our story more often, because it wasn't just an athletic director whining -- it was, here's just another example of the problems we're gonna have," Cobb said. "It made some people look with a more critical eye and understand that we do have some issues."

In 2009, the Board of Regents approved a proposed $80 million arena, but later told UAA administrators to revise the plans to ensure that a new facility would fill the school's needs for the next 30 or 40 years, Spindle said.

The revision changed the main gym from one that could seat about 3,000 to one that will seat around 5,600 and raised the price to $109 million.

"This project approval demonstrates strong broad-based support from the regents, the Legislature, the community of Anchorage, the Anchorage mayor, and many others," University of Alaska president Pat Gamble said in a press release.

In other action Friday, the Board of Regents:

• Approved an increase from $11.4 million to $13 million for the ongoing renovation of the UAA Science Building;

• Approved two new graduate certificates at UAA, one in children's mental health and one in career and technical education.

• Approved a $17.8 million project for new student housing and academic space at Kenai Peninsula College;

• Approved continuing repairs at the aging UAF power plant, not to exceed $40 million.

Reach Beth Bragg at or 257-4335.