Idaho Vandals

Doubling this student fee could allow U of I to start building its wooden arena this year

University of Idaho students could provide the final, multimillion-dollar push to allow the school to begin construction this year on its long-desired arena.

The university plans to double the $15 per semester fee students pay toward the arena project, which could increase the students’ potential commitment from about $9 million to more than $18 million. That would fill the gap between the $40 million the university says it has accumulated and the $48.5 million projected cost of the arena.

In return, the administration is negotiating with the student government, ASUI, on ways to reward the students for their investment. Technically, President Chuck Staben can increase the fee without student approval, ASUI President Nicole Skinner said, but he’s been “very willing to work with us.” The increase would need State Board of Education approval in April.

ASUI would like more input into the way student spaces on campus are managed, Skinner said. ASUI also was involved in establishing the original $15 fee in 2016.

The arena would host the men’s and women’s basketball programs but also serve as an entertainment venue for the campus and surrounding community.

“I’m happy to invest more money in the arena,” Skinner, who is from Meridian, said in a telephone interview, “but ... it’s a lot of money, and in order to make the increase worth it to students, we need to see more out of it, too. ... It’s a great opportunity to take a holistic view of the student experience on our campus.”

The university hopes to present the arena financing plan to the State Board of Education at its Feb. 13-14 meeting in Boise. If the board approves the project, groundbreaking could happen this spring and the arena could open for the 2021-22 basketball season, said Michael Perry, the special assistant to Staben who is leading the fundraising effort.

The plan includes a $10 million naming-rights donation from Idaho Central Credit Union, two $2.5 million pledges for naming rights to the competition and practice floors and $3 million from university reserves, according to Perry and Staben. The university also would have to front some of the construction cost while waiting for multiyear pledges and student fees to be collected, Perry said.

“It can’t happen soon enough,” 11th-year men’s basketball coach Don Verlin said in a telephone interview.

The arena, which will be built largely from wood products, has been a priority for Staben since he arrived at the university in 2014. This is his final semester as president.

“I identified the need for an arena during a pre-employment visit in January 2014,” Staben said through a university spokeswoman. “The nature of the project, such as the use of mass timber construction, has been shaped by extensive campus discussion. It has been my top fundraising priority since I became president.”

Funding materializes

The project became more realistic a year ago when ICCU provided a $10 million lump sum for naming rights to the arena for 35 years. The competition court will be named for longtime supporter Bud Ford. The practice court donor has requested anonymity, Perry said.

But the largest contribution could come from students. The $15-per-semester fee was implemented in fall 2016 and is expected to generate $260,000 per year based on current enrollment, U of I spokeswoman Jodi Walker said.

If it’s doubled, the fee would generate $520,000 per year. The fee runs concurrently with the ICCU deal — expiring 35 years after construction is completed, Walker said. That computes to more than $18 million from students, not counting the money collected in the years before the building is completed.

The current arena fee is wrapped into the $395-per-semester facility fee charged to students. The administration has mentioned the possibility that the arena fee would revert to $15-per-semester sooner than 35 years, Skinner said.

ICCU Arena exterior night.jpg
Courtesy of University of Idaho

The arena’s original estimated cost in 2016 was $30 million. That number has escalated in part because of rising construction costs, Perry said. Design changes, including a $1 million ramp that allows for loading equipment into the arena at floor level, also contributed, he said.

The 4,200-seat arena will be built on the lawn on the north side of the Kibbie Dome. That site originally was designated for a basketball arena in 1969, Perry said.

“We’re excited about where this is going to take us and what it’s going to mean for the university,” Perry said in an interview during a recent visit to Boise.

A football court?

When basketball recruits visit the Moscow campus and want to see where they would play, they’re shown a football field.

The Vandals men’s and women’s basketball teams play in the Cowan Spectrum, which is the name given to the court setup in the Kibbie Dome. That setup isn’t available until football season ends, so the teams begin the season in Memorial Gym — the historic, 1,500-seat building that was completed in 1928. Basketball also is moved to Memorial Gym during graduation in December and the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival near the end of the regular season.

Practices often are held at Memorial Gym and a PE building, both of which have scheduling issues and are separated from the locker rooms in the Kibbie Dome.

Courtesy of University of Idaho

The new arena will include identical coaches’ offices and locker rooms for the two basketball programs in addition to the practice court, Perry said. The volleyball team has chosen to stay at Memorial Gym, he said, but could move at a later date.

And the arena will be more than just a new building. Its unique, wooden design will give the Vandals a memorable selling point in recruiting.

“I love it,” women’s basketball coach Jon Newlee said in a phone interview. “It just looks great to me, the uniqueness of it. It’s not just a round building where you’re putting in the seats and playing.”

The wooden design was made possible in part through a partnership with the state’s forest-products industry, Perry said. The university is providing $1 million worth of wood from its experimental forest in North Idaho, and the forest-products industry is donating much of the labor required to prepare that wood for construction, he said.

The building will serve as a showpiece for what’s possible with wood. Construction of this type is popular in Canada, Perry said, but not yet in the United States. A Canadian firm, StructureCraft, was brought in to help finalize the design, which includes a roof meant to mimic the rolling wheatfields of the Palouse region.

Wooden beams also play a key role in the roof of the Kibbie Dome, which was built in the 1970s.

“You want it to be something that stands out,” Perry said.

Of the financial commitments for the arena, about $16.5 million is cash in hand, Perry said. The university is making a public push for more donations ( to make sure the project begins this year. The university anticipates $3.5 million in related construction costs that aren’t included in the arena estimate, including connecting the law school building, arena and Kibbie Dome to the university’s energy plant.

“We need to show the State Board that the funding is there,” Perry said.

The project has been talked about for so long that Perry says there will be skepticism until dirt is moved.

Verlin was convinced when ICCU made its gift a year ago and the planning process ramped up. Newlee became a believer when Staben told him the arena was a priority.

“It was the first time the president told me we were getting this: ‘It’s a priority to me. I’m getting this done,’ ” said Newlee, who is in his 11th season. “... That’s when I believed it. It was a big day, I know that. A happy day.”

Editor’s note: The opening season for the arena was corrected with updated information provided by the University of Idaho. The story also was edited to reflect the State Board of Education’s role in fee approval.

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