CHAMPAIGN — With a $160 million price tag looming, University of Illinois students are being asked to support a $25-a-semester fee increase to help pay for renovation of the Assembly Hall.
Meanwhile, preliminary sketches by AECOM architects show plans for more student seating close to the court, private boxes, restrooms on upper levels and a premium section dedicated to the Orange Krush.
A Facebook page called "Re-Assemble Assembly Hall"  was created last month urging students to sign a petition to place the fee increase on the March 5-6 student election ballot. The deadline to submit a referendum question is Feb. 17, said Claudia Christy, a UI sophomore who is part of a student committee backing the proposal.
Campus officials say it makes sense for students to contribute to the project because they benefit from Assembly Hall programming — not just sporting events but concerts, Broadway musicals, monster truck shows and the like.
"They attend athletic events there; they attend music events there; they need to share in the support of the upgrade," campus spokeswoman Robin Kaler said.
So far about 1,000 students have signed the petition, and 2,800 signatures are needed, Christy said.
But some students still need convincing.
UI junior Tom Pacey of Paxton said he agrees with the need for the renovation, but students haven't been given enough information about the fee increase with the election just a few weeks away.
Supporters say the fee would cover about 17 percent of the cost of the renovation over the 30-year life of the bonds financing the project. But they haven't said how much money that is, or how much the fee would raise annually, Pacey said.
The campus has almost 41,000 students, but some are exempted from fees. Even if just 25,000 students pay, that's $37.5 million over 30 years — "a big chunk of change," Pacey said.
"Before such a huge amount of money is raised from the student body directly, we need to make sure that we've exhausted all other options first," he said.
"We're not only committing ourselves to pay $25, we're committing the next generation and a half of Illini to paying that. It's a big decision ... and I don't know if we have enough information to do that."
Students already pay $544 a semester for two fees for the Assembly Hall and other self-supporting units on campus, such as Campus Recreation and the Illini Union. The service fee, which is $283 a semester, covers salaries, programming and other operating expenses. The general fee, which is $261 a semester, covers debt service, building upgrades and related costs for those units as well as for athletic facilities.
Altogether, student fees total $1,443 a semester and are set to increase next academic year to $1,458.
Christy said the Assembly Hall is a campuswide facility that "touches every student on campus. They start and finish their Illinois careers there," she said, referring to freshman convocation and graduation.
Administrators said the plan all along was to pay for the bulk of the $160 million renovation with private funding — naming rights, corporate sponsorships and the like — but supplement that with student fees. The UI has said it will not use state funding or tax dollars for the project.
Before the project can be taken to trustees for approval, 80 percent of the funding must be identified, and student fees are a key part of the mix, officials said.
"They've been saying that this has been in the works for a decade," Pacey said. "All the more reason they should have done a better job communicating this."
Pacey said the new project "is mainly going to improve our athletic facilities. ... Is it really worth the cost to benefit a small group of students?"
Administrators said the Assembly Hall needs to be brought up to today's standards to ensure it lasts another 50 years. While men's and women's basketball are the primary tenants, the Assembly Hall is always going to be a multipurpose facility, Associate Athletic Director Kent Brown said,
The hope is to present the project to trustees later this year, and construction would start in spring 2014 at the conclusion of the basketball season, he said.
Fundraising is in a "quiet phase" at the moment, but so far the feedback has been "very, very positive," he said.
The potential for naming rights is vast, including locker rooms, entrances, tunnels and meeting rooms — besides the building itself, which has been valued at up to $2 million a year.
"Everything is on the table. When you're trying to raise that much money, I think all options are out there," Brown said.
Student fees have helped pay for two recent renovations of Memorial Stadium, directly or indirectly.
In 1997, over student objections, UI trustees tacked a $34-a-semester increase onto the general fee to take over debt service payments on an $18 million renovation of Memorial Stadium. At the time, the debt payments totaled $1.2 million annually, and the move was seen as a way to balance an athletic budget that was $1.3 million in the red. Those bonds were scheduled to be paid off in 2022, and administrators said at the time the fee would expire then.
However, that $34 fee was tapped as one of several sources of revenue — along with concessions, ticket surcharges, club seating, etc. — to repay bonds for a more extensive stadium renovation completed in 2008.
The bonds sold to finance that $121 million renovation extend through 2036, and "the presumption is the fee would stay constant until that's paid off," said Randall Kangas, associate vice president for planning and budgeting.
Kangas noted that the project included a new student section at the north end of the stadium.
Increasing student seating for UI basketball games at the Assembly Hall is also a priority, Brown said.
Preliminary sketches on the group's Facebook page show seats much closer to the court, with a large section labeled "Orange Krush" at mid-court on one side and more orange student seats behind each basket. Shown immediately behind them is premium seating, and private boxes line one side of the arena behind what is now A section.
"Orange Krush is going to be on the floor, like a lot of other Big Ten schools have," Christy said.
The seats on the floor would be retractable, so they could be taken out for concerts and Broadway shows, officials said.
Restrooms would be added on the second floor, so that patrons in B and C sections don't have to go down to the lower level, she said.
Brown said the entrances are also being reworked, and concession areas will be redesigned to make them more convenient for upper-level seats.
The hall's myriad problems with accessibility also will be addressed, Christy said. Currently, patrons in wheelchairs have to go outside to get from the first to the second floor, she said.
Another drawing shows a private lounge for Orange Krush members to use during games, which would also be a multipurpose room for student use at other times. The Assembly Hall currently has just one meeting space, "and it's very small," she said.
Christy said students are also excited about the plans to air-condition the hall.
"It's going to make it just a much more comfortable, inviting arena," she said.