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Dean Dome Renovation in the Future?

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Grant Halverson

Via Andrew Carter at the News & Observer.

This is not a total surprise. After all the Dean Smith Center is 27 years old and after having spent significant money upgrading Kenan Stadium with the Blue Zone, it only makes sense the home of UNC's most popular sport would be next on the list of an athletic director approaching his first full year on the job.

Officials at North Carolina have been engaged in more serious discussions about major renovations to the Smith Center, and the university is considering the possibility of building a new men’s basketball arena, UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham said on Monday.

"That’s in the discussion," Cunningham said, speaking of building a new arena, during an interview with The News & Observer. "I think you have to look at both. (The Smith Center) has been fabulous for 27 years.

"And I think as just part of your due diligence you need to look at renovation of existing facilities or even dreaming about a new facility and what that would bring."

UNC has shared the most significant discussions, Cunningham said, with Kansas City-based 360 Architecture, a firm with a wide portfolio that includes more than a dozen sports arenas and stadiums. The discussions have been preliminary in nature, Cunningham said, and the first step is for UNC to receive conceptual designs before determining economic feasibility.

It is unclear how much the project might cost because it is so early in the planning process.

If the Smith Center is indeed renovated, the primary purpose would be to add what Cunningham has described as "revenue generators," which would most likely include luxury suites, club seating or a combination of both. The Smith Center opened in 1986, several years before those amenities started to become common in basketball arenas.

Either option is fraught with all sorts of landmines. Simply undertaking a renovation of the building is not as easy as it sounds. One notable issue that would need to be addressed is compliance with the American with Disabilities Act. The current building was constructed prior to that federal statute becoming law. Any update to the building must include compliance with those regulations which would undoubtedly raise a whole host of issues that could complicate the renovation.

There is also the issue of fans holding lifetime rights to seats. What happens if seats are lost in the renovation? This could be a very touchy subject to navigate. Not to mention, renovating a twenty-seven year old building isn't a cake walk especially if there is no intention for the Tar Heels to play in an alternate venue while it is happening. And anyone who has ever seen a project of this magnitude knows costs and schedules sometimes go awry.

The potentially complicated nature of the renovation and basic due diligence is why there is some discussion of simply building a new arena to replace the Dean Dome. Of course that kind of project would be immensely difficult to sell to the public making it the hottest of political hot potatoes. At present the state of North Carolina(like many states) is facing a variety of budget issues. Those issues have impacted the UNC system and add to the mix the continual rise in the cost of higher education for students, trotting out a plan for a new multi-million dollar facility is going to rub many people the wrong way. It would be a massive investment at a time when serious questions are being asked about the priority being given collegiate athletics. Coming on the heels of UNC having spent over $5 million on internal probes and PR damage control stemming from the NCAA scandal, launching a campaign to build a new arena might not be so well received.

For now this is all in the very early planning stages. There haven't been any firm decisions made and as Bubba Cunningham noted, this is very much about due diligence. Nevertheless, there are some interesting possibilities to ponder. The Dean Dome, like Carmichael before it is full of memories. Parting with that for a new building would be difficult but at the same time a new arena, if done the right, would be also be great.