IUPUI faces tough decisions over aging sports facilities

August 18, 2008

From 1979 to 1982, IUPUI inherited three world-class athletic facilities that have since hosted Olympic trials and world-record performances by top-flight amateur and professional athletes.

But that inheritance has turned into a financial albatross around the university's neck. It's grappling with how to pay for their upkeep and the improvements necessary to keep the facilities--and the city--in the hunt for high-profile sporting events.

In addition to determining the long-term future of the Natatorium, Michael A. Carroll Track & Soccer Stadium and Indianapolis Tennis Center, IUPUI is also contemplating the future of its growing men's and women's basketball programs. Those teams play in a 1,215-seat gymnasium that many high schools would consider inadequate.

IUPUI Chancellor Charles Bantz and his top lieutenants--along with officials for Indiana University in Bloomington--have been huddling for the last nine months working on a campus master plan, which is set to be complete by January.

David King, of Washington, D.C.-based SmithGroup/JJR, was hired to serve as IU's new master planner and is overseeing preparation of comprehensive master plans for all seven campuses, including IUPUI.

"We're looking at a lot of long-term issues: transportation, housing, and the medical center," said Roger Schmenner, Bantz's chief of staff. "The school's athletic facilities will certainly be a part of the plan."

Local sports officials said if IUPUI and its collaborators don't come up with a plan soon, the city will start losing some of the big-time sporting events that have become its trademark and a major source of tourism and national and international exposure.

"Within the next year, there needs to be a clear signal that something will be done," said Indiana Sports Corp. President Susan Williams, who also serves on an IUPUI master plan advisory committee. "We're at risk right now for losing events if something doesn't get done. We keep trying to overcome that, but I'd say we're at the pinnacle of that risk factor, especially with the Natatorium."

A newly proposed NCAA swimming festival--which could draw more than 25,000 contestants and spectators for a multi-day event--is among the events that could be at risk.

The NCAA is considering bringing its men's and women's Division I, II and III championships together for one big festival of swimming, and the IUPUI Natatorium is a leading candidate to be the permanent site of the annual event beginning in 2011--but only if the facility is upgraded.

Improving the water and air quality in the pool and its surroundings is critical, and upgrading spectator seating areas, press accommodations and telecommunications infrastructure are also paramount at the Natatorium and track and soccer stadium.

But Schmenner admits that's just the start. Another $18 million, he said, is needed in upkeep and upgrades for the Natatorium and track and soccer stadium, both of which were built in 1982.

When it comes to its sports facilities, IUPUI is eager to partner with members of the Mayor's Office, Indiana Sports Corp., Indiana Convention & Visitors Association, companies or local foundations to formulate a plan.

"We're in the business of seeking out partners," said Schmenner, who's in charge of the facilities' upkeep and planning.

While IUPUI officials are eager for ideas and money, they are reluctant to surrender control of the venues, local sports business experts said.

Benefactors must pay

While Schmenner thinks the trio of sports facilities has helped enhance campus life and helped the school with student attraction and retention, there's little doubt the city and its businesses have derived millions of dollars in benefits from the events that have been hosted here. That's a point IUPUI officials intend to hammer home.

"We think these facilities are assets for all of us," Schmenner said.

Doug Logan, the new CEO of USA Track & Field, said the track at IUPUI is one of the primary reasons his organization is headquartered in Indianapolis. He said despite needed upgrades, the track remains one of the top five in the United States and, if maintained, will continue to draw international events to Indianapolis.

"That track and the other facilities here are part of a marvelous heritage in this city," Logan said.

The price tag to continue that heritage is larger than IUPUI can afford alone, Schmenner said.

"We have some tremendous needs," he said. "We have 18 different schools here. We have lots of different things happening, and we have to address all of them."

Since 1996, IUPUI has paid for $5.8 million in repairs and renovations to the Natatorium and track and soccer stadium. This year, IUPUI has $2.2 million earmarked to upgrade the roof, locker rooms, classrooms, labs and more at the Natatorium, which also houses the university's School of Physical Education and Tourism Management.

ISC's Williams thinks a plan needs to be devised to help the university capture more of the economic activity the venues create.

"These facilities help fill a lot of hotel rooms, sell a lot of meals, and bring in a lot of other money that goes someplace else, and doesn't come back to the facilities," Williams said. "A lot of the money generated from things like parking, catering, concession sales, and the list goes on, is simply going elsewhere."

Williams suggests creating a self-sustaining, not-for-profit entity to operate the Natatorium and track and soccer stadium. It would be run like a business and pump revenue back into the facilities.

Support, but no cash, from city

IUPUI officials didn't waste any time reaching out to new mayor Greg Ballard, who has offered his support, but not yet offered to throw any tax money toward the effort.

"I think these facilities promote and propel Indianapolis into a top-tier community for athletic events," said Nick Webber, deputy mayor of economic development. "It helps cement our reputation for sports and puts emphasis on the heart of downtown. ... To the degree we can support them, we will support them."

But with Ballard in the midst of citywide budget cuts, IUPUI officials wonder how much of a financial commitment the Republican mayor is willing to make.

"It's too early to say what specific help the city might offer," Webber said. "But we definitely want to help IUPUI think through their challenges."

It's time to replace strategy sessions and loosely knitted alliances with action, said Milton Thompson, president of Grand Slam Cos. and longtime ISC board member who was involved in the planning of some of the venues.

"It's time for the university and city officials along with sanctioning bodies to come together in a very real way to make sure this city doesn't lose what we've worked so hard to build," Thompson said.

Collaboration played a big role in the facilities' being built.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, city officials helped acquire land and paid for cleanup and site preparation, then, along with university officials, led the effort to raise money from the federal government, Lilly Endowment and other private sources to build the sports facilities.

IUPUI was hung with paying for maintenance and upgrades. The university passed upkeep of the Indianapolis Tennis Center on to the tournament that leases the facility, but has taken on the expense of the Natatorium and track and soccer stadium itself. Some school officials quietly complain that it is an expense the school can't afford.

Tennis anyone?

The Indianapolis Tennis Center, which was constructed in 1979, needs $8 million to $12 million in upgrades, but IUPUI has little use for the stadium court that is the centerpiece of the annual Indianapolis Tennis Championships, an ATP Tour stop. So the university has put that project on the back burner. IUPUI's tennis teams primarily use the outlying courts just west of the stadium.

"The tennis center is wonderful for our city, and we are its custodian, but it is not something that is critical to our sports programs," Schmenner said. "We're happy at this time to host it on our land, but the historical arrangement has been for the tennis tournament to maintain the facility."

There has been speculation that IUPUI wants to use the land the tennis center occupies for a convocation center that could double as a home for the growing men's and women's basketball programs, but Schmenner said there's no such plan in the works. However, plans to make IUPUI bigger don't include adding to its 509-acre campus, so its existing footprint will have to be used "more intensely," he said.

Welcome to the Jungle

University officials are studying where they might locate a new basketball venue and convocation center, Schmenner said, and observers think the site of the tennis center is a natural choice.

The uncertainty of the Indianapolis Tennis Championships, which has endured a serious attendance downturn in recent years, only serves to cloud the picture. The tennis tournament's current five-year agreement to hold the tournament at the IUPUI tennis center runs through 2010.

IUPUI men's and women's basketball teams practice and play in a gym, nicknamed The Jungle, on the north end of the Natatorium. Schmenner said if the school's basketball program continues to grow in popularity, The Jungle will soon become inadequate. IUPUI began competing in the NCAA's largest division in 1997.

"We would love to have a convocation center to hold things like basketball games and graduations," Schmenner said. "When we're going to get it, and how we're going to do it, is not clear."

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