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Anchorage, meet UAA's new athletics facility: The Alaska Airlines Center

Laurel Andrews
Alaska Airlines marketing director Scott Habberstad celebrates that his bottle of champagne broke on the first swing. Bill Spindle, UAA's vice chancellor of administrative services, later christened the building with the bottle of champagne shown intact. Spindle's bottle broke on the second try. Laurel Andrews photo

The name of UAA’s highly-anticipated sports center was announced to the public on Thursday afternoon. The Alaska Airlines Center, set to open in 2014, has been named in recognition of a $6.3 million gift the airline has pledged to the university, money that will fund athletic scholarships for many years to come. The new sports center will replace a much smaller facility built more than 30 years ago.

On a bright, brisk day, university administrators came together to unveil the name. Crews continued to work on the building as officials gathered, with cranes hoisting slabs of metal up the gigantic, curved frame of the structure as officials snapped photos and talked among themselves.

“It’s nice to finally start to see it take some shape,” University of Alaska President Pat Gamble said.

After breaking two bottles of champagne against the building’s concrete walls in a christening ceremony, administrators headed to UAA’s student center to make the announcement to a group of students and community members who were huddled in the chilly weather, waiting to hear the news.

Vice Chancellor for Administrative Services Bill Spindle broke one of the bottles of champagne. He has been working on realizing the new space since the plan first circulated several years ago. He called the new building “a dream come true," and said it will be a place where the community will want to gather.

Scott Habberstad, Alaska Airlines marketing director, broke the other bottle. Alaska Airlines' decision to fund UAA athletic scholarships is the airline’s way of “reinvesting in our home state,”  he said.

The Alaska Airlines center will replace the Wells Fargo Sports Arena, built in 1978, which the university long ago outgrew. UAA Athletics Director Steve Cobb explained that the aging arena seats fewer than 1,000 spectators, and was originally built as a recreational center for a community college.

The arena was also the subject of a Title IX lawsuit in 2008 that alleged that the women’s locker rooms were over-crowded compared to the men’s, creating inequality for the women’s teams. While the complaint caused the university to institute immediate changes, it also demonstrated that the school had outgrown its facilities, Cobb said.

How much of an upgrade will it be? “Infinity,” Cobb said. In a brief speech before administrators, he said he hopes the building will not only become a “dream destination,” but also a “nightmare” for visiting sports teams.

The new $109-million center will encompass 200,000 square feet, and will be able to seat 5,600 spectators in the main gymnasium -- even though the men's and women's basketball teams seldom sell out the 1,000-seat Wells Fargo Sports Center gym.

More than 800 parking lot spaces will be available, thanks in part to an agreement with neighboring Providence Hospital, that will allow the university to use its parking garages free of charge during the evenings, in exchange for the use of university's main lot during the day. The center will have new equipment, concession stands, offices for coaches and staff, an auxiliary gym, and a gymnastics gym with spectator seating. The center is expected to host community activities, including high school sport games, concerts and graduations.

“We are going to share it with the student body, with the faculty and staff, with the Anchorage community – a lot of people are going to get use out of this building,” Cobb said.

Assistant coach for the Nordic ski team Tor Christopherson said that the new building will be far more spacious than the old Wells Fargo building. “We have really cramped spaces right now,” Christopherson said. “Our varsity weight room is literally an old squash court. It’s tiny. So this is going to be sweet.”

The name unveiling on Thursday revealed that in addition to the new sports center, UAA will also have a new scholarship program. The gift from Alaska Airlines is a $5.3 million enhanced-athletics contract, much of which will go toward travel expenses for the teams, which UAA says is its largest single program expense. The other portion of the gift is a $1 million endowment that will be funded every year for 10 years. Once fully funded, it will be used to provide $40,000 in athletic scholarships annually, funding student athletes “in perpetuity,” Marilyn Romano, Alaska Airlines' regional vice president, told the crowd. “Not only you may be able to take advantage of that, but maybe your children and your grandchildren,” she said. 

The first recipients of the scholarship also spoke briefly before the crowd – Kyle Fossman, accounting major and basketball team member, and Katlin Sanders, nursing major and women’s volleyball team member, both expressed thanks for the new center and scholarship endowment.

The Sullivan Arena will remain home to the Carrs/Safeway Great Alaska Shootout basketball tournament and UAA’s home hockey games. The Wells Fargo building will still be used for hockey practice and for other sporting activities, but it will no longer be UAA’s main facility.

The Alaska Airlines center is expected to open for use in August 2014.

Contact Laurel Andrews at laurel(at)alaskadispatch.com