TAMPA — The Sun Dome, home to USF's basketball programs and many concerts and community events for 30 years, could be weeks away from a $35 million renovation, a long-overdue makeover the university is expecting to triple the arena's annual revenues from last year.
"We're very excited to give it a facelift; the Sun Dome is a huge facility, and this is a big project," said Mark Walsh, USF's assistant vice president for government relations. "Once this is completed, we'll be able to do a lot more with it."
USF approved its plan and financing for the $35 million project — $8.5 million will be paid with cash reserves, with the remainder financed over 20 years — with the hopes of extending the arena for "an additional 30 years." What remains is approval March 24 at a Tallahassee meeting of the Board of Governors, which must approve any major project for the state's public universities.
Construction won't begin until the project is approved, but the arena isn't booking any events. High schools are moving graduations elsewhere, and USF's commencement in May has a reservation at the St. Pete Times Forum.
The upgrades include reconfiguring the 10,000-seat arena to add a center scoreboard, concessions and restrooms in a new concourse level and opportunities for club-level viewing.
"It's been needed for a while. We all know that. It's great to see it's coming to fruition," said men's basketball coach Stan Heath, whose team drew an average of 4,202 fans this season, lowest in the Big East and less than half the league average.
The USF athletic department is in the middle of a separate $35 million package of upgrades that include new baseball, softball and soccer stadiums, plus practice facilities for football and basketball. But athletics is only a tenant in the Sun Dome, which is budgeted for 165 rental days a year.
"It's been one of the landmarks and icons of this university for the last 30 years," athletic director Doug Woolard said Monday. "It's been a convocation center as much as an arena, but if this is approved, when it's completed, it will serve the entire Tampa Bay community in great fashion."
Outside consultants hired by USF determined last year that "the arena has reached the end of its effective service life," according to an agenda item presented last week to USF's board of trustees.
The upgrades will be paid for using additional revenues expected from the improved facility. That includes a budgeted $550,000 annually for naming rights. USF's pouring contract with Coca-Cola expires next year, and it expects revenue from that to increase from $800,000 a year to $1.25 million.
In all, the revenue generated by the arena is budgeted to be more than $4 million in 2011-12 and moving forward, more than triple the $1.27 million generated in 2009-10. Should the revenues fall short of the budgeted estimates, the USF Foundation will cover the shortfall under USF's proposal.
The arena renovation wouldn't be the largest project ongoing at USF, costing less than the campus' new music building and not even half the university's new Interdisciplinary Science building, which nearly matches the arena's 250,000 square feet.
The arena approval hasn't been formally added to the board's agenda for this month, but Walsh said USF has worked closely with the board, giving the school confidence its proposal will be approved.
"We don't send it up there cold. We've been working with them for six months, so it's to a point where they will view it as financially sound," he said. "I feel very confident they'll approve it. Will it be this month? We hope so."
If the proposal is approved, construction could begin next month, with the hopes of having it completed in time for fall graduation in December, as well as the start of the Big East basketball season. Early season nonconference games would be played off campus, either at the Times Forum or potentially at USF's other campuses, such as in Lakeland.