KOCH: Arena Project Has Been Six Years In The Making
Aug. 29, 2015

By Bill Koch
GoBEARCATS.com

CINCINNATI – The decision by the University of Cincinnati Board of Trustees this week to move forward with the renovation of Fifth Third Arena was the next major step in a process that began six years ago when Mike Thomas was the UC director of athletics.

Two ADs later, UC has a plan to convert the arena into one with state-of-the art fan amenities at a cost of $85 million after the board approved expenditure of $2.2 million to allow for the completion of documents in the design/development phase of the project.

According to UC director of athletics Mike Bohn, the school has raised $16 million and needs to raise an additional $24 million for the project to reach fruition.       

UC officials have long known that the shortcomings of Fifth Third Arena had to be addressed. The building opened in 1989 as Shoemaker Center and has undergone no significant updates. Thomas started the ball rolling in March 2009 when he commissioned a study by HNTB.

At the time, UC gave HNTB three scenarios then under consideration:

  • Leave the building as it is.
  • Renovate the building so that it has the appropriate spectator amenities and enhancements expected in a contemporary facility.
  • Abandon the facility and take the games to U.S. Bank Arena downtown after a renovation of that building.

HNTB presented UC with three options, which it identified as “small, medium and large.” Those designations did not necessarily indicate the size or scale of the renovation but the anticipated costs of the construction. UC officials decided that the small option “was too timid and did not achieve enough of the study parameters.” The medium option would have required “major manipulation of the building components and still leave the building with flawed seats and sight lines.” The large option was the most ambitious, leaving only the shell of the building intact and more closely resembled a new arena.


 

 

The study wasn’t acted upon until 2011 when the issue again came to the forefront.

“We dusted off that study and started looking at what was the real potential for renovating Fifth Third Arena,” said Brendan Fouracre, a UC senior associate AD who has been intimately involved in the project. “The direction at that time was looking at the large impact. The idea there was, is this something we can take on campus? Is this something that’s feasible or do we need to look in another direction?”

That’s when the possibility of moving the games to U.S. Bank Arena began to be considered more seriously. But that could happen only if the Nederlander Organization, which owns the arena, would update the building. Although some discussions took place, no plan was ever presented by Nederlander.

Also around that time, Whit Babcock, the second AD to be involved in the project, had turned his attention to the $86-million renovation of Nippert Stadium, which will be unveiled on Sept. 5 when UC plays Alabama A&M in the Bearcats’ football season opener. It was Babcock’s belief that the football stadium should take top priority because it offered more potential to generate revenue. Fifth Third Arena would be next in line.

In February 2014, after Babcock left UC to become the director of athletics at Virginia Tech, Bohn was hired to run the UC athletic department. Bohn has always been a strong advocate of keeping the games on campus and made Fifth Third a priority even as construction continued on the Nippert Stadium renovation.

“We started to realize that the climate, culture, fans and the people surrounding the Bearcats program were really interested in doing something on campus that had an impact on the campus, the current venue and the community,” Fouracre said. “We saw there was interest to thrive right here.

“We did an additional study focusing on the medium impact study. While we were doing that, we did a market study with current season ticket holders and single-game buyers. We put a very detailed questionnaire out there, garnered their feedback on what they felt the arena lacked. We got some very candid feedback.”

The survey, which was sent out in the spring of 2014 to 13,388 season ticket holders, mini-plan holders and former season ticket holders. The school received 2,391 responses and found an overall satisfaction level with the current arena of 74 percent, with 83 percent of season ticket holders satisfied, but only 52 percent of mini-plan holders.

The lowest satisfaction rates were in the areas of food and beverage selection, service at the will call windows, food and beverage quality, concession access, concession prices, ease of walking around, restroom access, comfort of seats, the view from seats, and parking.

The highest were for atmosphere, safety and security, the public address system, the scoreboard and halftime activities. Clearly, there was a lot of work to be done to improve he fan experience at men’s basketball games, a conclusion that was not expected.

Next up was a full market study “on what the climate was or what the interest was in a renovated Fifth Third Arena,” Fouracre said, “what the interest was for certain premium amenities. Every indication from our market study and individual surveys were all positive in lining up to say that we were on the right track.”

By August, 2014, UC had developed project goals for the renovation that included a 5,000-seat lower bowl, capturing the “pulse and spirit of the UC students,” improving the overall experience, which would include a new look and feel, improved circulation and enhanced amenities in an attempt to make the building a destination.

UC then hired the firm of Columbus-based Moody-Nolan, Inc. to do schematic designs. What that firm came up with was an overall seating capacity of 11,500 – down from the current capacity of 13,176 - with the creation of a 360-degree seating bowl, new restroom and concession facilities, and a new upper-level concourse with its own amenities. The renovated arena will also feature expanded premium seating options, including a courtside club, arena club and concourse club as well as enclosed suites, loge seating, a new Bearcats lounge and super suites.

The building will be the home of UC men’s and women’s basketball as well as women’s volleyball. If UC meets its fundraising goals, the board is expected to give final approval in about three months. Construction would then begin after the end of the 2015-16 season. The Bearcats would have to play their games at different venue for the 2016-17 season, and would return to a renovated Fifth Third Arena for the 2017-18 season.

Bill Koch covered UC Athletics for 27 years - 15 at The Cincinnati Post and 12 at The Cincinnati Enquirer - before joining the staff of GoBEARCATS.com in January, 2015 as featured columnist. Follow him on Twitter @bkoch.