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UNC’s plans to renovate or replace Smith Center “on the back burner”

By Andrew Carter
acarter@newsobserver.com

CHAPEL HILL North Carolina still has interest in renovating the Smith Center or building a new arena to replace it, but those plans “have been pretty much on the back burner for 12 months,” UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham said in an interview earlier this week.

Cunningham has publicly expressed a desire to renovate the Smith Center, which opened in 1986, and add premium features – like luxury suites – that could generate more revenue. The uncertainty of the college sports landscape, though, as well as budget concerns have decreased the likelihood that UNC develops a formal plan for the Smith Center, or its replacement, any time soon.

“We don’t know about the long term implications of the O’Bannon ruling,” Cunningham said. “We don’t know where the autonomy group is going to take the governance structure. So I think now’s the time to be pretty cautious in what we’re going to do next.”

The NCAA Division I Board of Directors recently approved autonomy for the so-called “Power 5” conferences – the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC – and that will allow those leagues to create some of their own rules. It’s likely the Power 5 will soon approve of a full cost of attendance stipend, which at UNC could add a $1.8 million annual expense to the athletic department budget, Cunningham said.

At UNC, renovations to the Smith Center would likely cost tens of millions of dollars, and a new arena could cost hundreds of millions. It’s unclear how any project would be funded, but Cunningham said any plan to renovate or build a new arena would likely be tied to a yet-to-be-formalized broader university-wide fundraising campaign.

Another question, aside from the funding, is whether UNC would prefer to renovate or build a new arena. The Smith Center opened in 1986 at a cost $34 million. At the time it was considered state of the art, but it opened before things like luxury suites and premium seating areas became common.

“It’s like remodeling your house,” Cunningham said. “You can enhance it. There’s plenty of things you can do. Some will argue a need to enhance it a lot; others will say you don’t need to change it – it’s terrific. And other people will say, boy, if you’re going to invest this significant amount of money you should probably bite the bullet and really build new.”

When UNC played at Michigan State last December, Cunningham toured Michigan State’s Breslin Center and Michigan’s Crisler Arena, where in 2012 the university began work on a $52 million renovation that has since been completed. Michigan State last month announced plans to renovate the Breslin Center at a projected cost of $28 million.

UNC within the past year has also sent personnel to Louisville to tour the KFC Yum! Center, which is home to Louisville basketball. A downtown arena with a seating capacity of more than 22,000, the Yum! Center opened in 2010 at a cost of about $240 million.

“Michigan did an incredible retro fit of Crisler Arena,” Cunningham said. “(They) didn’t add a lot of premium space that had a view of the court. Had quite a bit of space that didn’t have a view of the court but then your seats, obviously, were court side. … Louisville’s at the other extreme.

“Louisville’s a $300 million pro facility. Which was built with state money. So I imagine there’s somewhere in between that would fit our comfort.”

UNC has had preliminarily discussions with at least two architectural firms, including 360 Architecture in Kansas City. That firm was behind the construction of the Miami Heat’s American Airlines Arena, and the Sprint Center in Kansas City, where UNC played in the NCAA tournament in 2013.

Potential renovations to the Smith Center, or the prospect of a new arena, appears to be a long ways from becoming reality, though. And as much as Cunningham would prefer the Smith Center to have premium features that would drive revenue, he said “that’s not something that’s critical.”

“Plus, as we operate in the state system and in the university, we have to take a look at our debt limits as an institution,” he said. “And so just because we say, hey, let’s do this, doesn’t mean we can do it.”

Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter
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