Updated: Premium seating outlined for renovated Assembly Hall
Updated 8:47 p.m. Thursday.
CHAMPAIGN — Donors will provide more than 75 percent of the cost for renovating the University of Illinois Assembly Hall, UI officials say, but they aren't ready to announce any big contributions yet.
The building has two dozen opportunities for "naming rights" — from the hall itself to the court, entrances and sports displays honoring various teams — but those won't be made public until the $160 million project is brought to the UI Board of Trustees for final approval in late May, athletic officials said Thursday.
The UI kicked off its public fundraising for the project this week, sending brochures to about 8,000 season ticket holders and I-Fund donors outlining the prices for "premium seating" at the renovated Assembly Hall.
Each level — suites, courtside seats, loge "mini-suites" and club seating — will require a contribution, from $3,000 to "seven or eight figures" if naming opportunities are included, as well as an annual gift, said Rick Darnell, senior associate athletic director for development.
Donors and fans will have until April 19 to take part in the premium seating program.
Major construction on the project is scheduled to start in March 2014 and wrap up by November 2016, though some utility work will likely begin this summer, said Athletic Director Mike Thomas.
The scheduling of the project, in between basketball seasons, means there's no need for the team to play home games elsewhere, Thomas said. Construction will run from March to November of 2014, 2015 and 2016. Exactly how the work will be phased — including when air-conditioning will be added — hasn't been ironed out yet, Thomas said.
Thomas said his staff is "making progress" on naming opportunities and other fundraising, but he and Darnell declined to discuss any numbers. Eighty percent of the project funding must be in place before trustees will approve it, said athletic spokesman Kent Brown.
"We still have a lot of work to do," Thomas said. "I feel confident."
The total project cost is estimated at $260 million to $300 million over the 30-year life of the bonds used to finance the renovation, Thomas said.
Students recently approved a $25-a-semester student fee increase that will cover about 17 percent of that cost. Philanthropy — donations from corporations and individuals, including the premium seating payments — will cover about 77 percent, and the remainder will come from ticket and facility revenue, Brown said.
The premium seats will include 12 suites, each with 14 seats and room for four more standing; 120 courtside seats; 80 four-person loge "mini-suites"; and 1,000 club seats.
Suites are still available, but they've proved "very popular," Thomas said.
Four clubs for premium ticket holders will be created as part of the renovation: an 8,000-square-foot Traditions Club flanked by the suites; a Courtside Club for those with courtside seats; a Mezzanine Club, and an Orange Krush Club.
I-Fund members who don't want to buy a premium opportunity will be eligible for priority seating as they are now, based on a point system that includes consecutive years of season tickets and donation level, Thomas said.
But as with the stadium project a few years ago, they and other season-ticket holders will likely find themselves in different seats.
"There's no question that people have to be reshuffled," Brown said, as both the A and B sections will lose seats to make way for the clubs and premium seats.
Premium seats will take up about 10 percent of the total seats in the arena, though overall seating capacity will shrink by about 1,500, to roughly 15,200 or 15,300, Thomas said.
Thomas and Assembly Hall Director Kevin Ullestad said the project will benefit the entire campus, with a larger floor for bigger shows and conventions that have bypassed the arena in the past. Some of the seats around the floor will be retractable to allow for more space.
Air-conditioning will also allow the building to be used during the summer months, they said. And the clubs could be used for other types of events, such as wedding receptions, Thomas said.
Other details provided at Thursday's press conference:
— All seats will be orange and blue.
— Student seating close to the court will increase from 700 to 1,200.
— Team benches will be in front of the students on the east side, with student seats directly behind them and visible on television.
— The arena will have two "grand entrances" on the east and west sides, with a semicircle drive added on the east.
— The reconfigured west side will remain the primary entrance, and will feature a hall of fame, retail outlet and ticket office.
— On the exterior, the glass walls will be pushed farther out to allow wider concourses with more room for additional restrooms and concessions.
— The project will also improve accessibility to meet ADA requirements.
"Every inch of space will be renovated," Thomas said.
Basketball coach John Groce said the renovation could be a "program changer."
"We talk a lot about a program-changing recruit or a program-changing style of play," he said. "Assembly Hall is an iconic building, it's a great gameday atmosphere, one of the best in the country. With the changes we're gonna make, it's a program changer in a positive way as we continue to build our basketball program and I think it's gonna help us accelerate that."
Trustees recently approved a $2 million professional services contract with AECOM to develop detailed architectural plans and proceed with utility work. The Los Angeles-based architectural firm was initially hired in November 2011 to create schematic designs to be used for fundraising.
News-Gazette staff writer Marcus Jackson contributed to this report.