NCAA mum on date to reopen fire-damaged Hall of Champions

August 25, 2008

Almost a full year after a fire in a single exhibit closed the NCAA Hall of Champions, the wait for the college sports museum's reopening is becoming as prolonged and agonizing as sitting through a college football game during a freezing November rain.

The NCAA is apparently in no hurry to relieve the suspense. Requests for an update on the repair and reopening schedule drew little more than a terse "no comment" from Gail Dent, the hall's director of public and media relations. "We plan to reopen the hall by the end of the year," she stated via e-mail. "We have no additional details to share at this time."

The sports body's Web page offers a bit more information, stating that, "The Hall of Champions will re-open in stages. ... The renovation will include a multipurpose facility with refreshed content designed to engage and inspire visitors."

The canal-side structure in White River State Park went about its "engage and inspire" business without incident until last November, when it was put out of action by a seemingly innocuous fire. It was caused by an electrical short in the "One Shining Moment" kiosk, which showed CBS-assembled musical montages chronicling various NCAA Final Four basketball tournaments. However, the fire also set off the building's second-floor sprinkler system, damaging other exhibits and leaving behind ankle-deep puddles of water.

The adjacent NCAA headquarters, briefly evacuated when smoke got into the ventilation system, reopened almost immediately. The museum was shuttered, and remains so today.

Bob Whitt, White River State Park's executive director, advises patience.

"When the fire occurred, at that time the plan was, 'Let's just get it fixed and open,'" he said. "And then they--wisely, I think--decided to make the changes that, long term, will be a very positive thing for that institution and for the park."

The NCAA is "going to make lemonade out of lemons," Whitt said. "They brought in a consultant and are doing a lot to improve the exhibits, to make them more interactive."

The museum's closure hasn't had much impact on White River State Park, he said. The sprawling downtown green space saw 3.1 million visitors in 2007, and is on track to post similar numbers in 2008--all without the Hall of Champions.

"We certainly see it as one of our anchor attractions," Whitt said. "But in terms of impact on the overall number of visitors, it's probably fairly minimal."

Before it closed, the museum's adult admission was $3. Whitt declined to break out its attendance, but it likely was substantially below what NCAA officials were shooting for when they opened the museum in 2000.

Back then, officials estimated the hall would draw perhaps 250,000 visitors annually. Those guests would peruse its roughly 25,000 square feet of exhibit space and drop perhaps $750,000 on tickets and purchases at its 3,000 square feet of retail space.

Exhibits in the pre-fire days included a wraparound video screen, a 1920s-era basketball gym (one of the most popular spots), and salutes of some sort to all of the 23 sports and 88 national championships the NCAA oversees.

The $10 million, Michael Graves-designed structure was a vast improvement over the much smaller museum at the sports governing body's former headquarters in suburban Kansas City, which pulled in an anemic 65,000 visitors annually.

The problem is that, compared to its much larger neighbors, such as the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art and the Indiana State Museum, the Hall of Champions is a comparative pipsqueak. It's not, as professionals would say, an "all-day" destination.

"I guess it just depends on the nature of who the museum attendee is," said Amanda Cecil, assistant professor at IUPUI's Department of Tourism, Convention and Event Management. "For those coming into the city looking for options, it's one of the options. Would you spend all day there? Probably not. But you could spend a couple of hours there. Especially if you're a sports enthusiast."

Of course, it doesn't hurt that the hall is within walking distance of everything from the IUPUI Natatorium to Lucas Oil Stadium to Victory Field. In fact, Cecil doesn't object to the idea of marketing the museum as a good place to kill a couple of pre-game hours.

But while she thinks the idea of masses of people coming downtown just to see the Hall of Champions is problematic, she believes that when it comes to hosting corporate and other events, the hall remains prime real estate.

"This is a wonderful venue for events of 100 or 200 people," she said. "Especially since it has a catering partner and meeting space attached. It's a great package for a planner when they're looking for a special events site."

Apparently the NCAA agrees, having devoted 10,000 square feet of the first floor of its national headquarters to a conference center, which was largely unaffected by the fire. A revamp of the hall itself could only add to its cache.

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