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USF plans to let air out of Sun Dome

The air-supported Sun Dome roof, a landmark on the University of South Florida campus, is about to be deflated for good.

USF officials say the roof needs to be replaced with one that is permanent and supported by steel, not air. They also must raise half of the $8-million needed to get the job done.

"We're working on it," said Mike LaPan, president of the 11,400-seat facility, which opened 17 years ago.

Air-supported roofs are becoming obsolete. An air-supported roof over the O'Connell Center on the University of Florida campus in Gainesville also is being replaced.

LaPan said USF hopes to start work next summer on the Sun Dome roof and complete it by the time students arrive for classes in the fall of 1999.

The fact that air, not steel beams, supports the Sun Dome roof limits the events that can be staged there and sometimes alters how they are staged. Even if officials weren't planning to replace the roof, the fabric now in place would need to be replaced.

"The cost of the fabric is very expensive," LaPan said.

Questions about the air-supported roof were raised years before the building ever opened.

Then USF President Wm. Reece Smith said construction would not go ahead until the university had assurances the roof would work.

"I do not want to be remembered as the interim president who built the boondoggle at the university," Smith said in January 1977.

Three years later, when the Sun Dome was preparing for its official opening, the roof issues had not disappeared.

"Because of the Sun Dome's air-supported roof, it feels like a blustery day when you stand in the building's open doorway," a press release conceded. "Original building plans called for lobby areas with other sets of doors to create an airlock at each entrance to the building. These would have helped buffer the force of the wind. But when inflation hit and costs had to be cut, those lobbies were eliminated."

In December 1981, lightning struck a generator, stopping the pumps that kept the roof inflated. For about 90 minutes during a rainstorm, the roof sagged and let rain collect.

A fierce storm in 1988 ripped the roof's fabric and caused a collapse, and a lightning strike in 1989 also caused a collapse.

USF spent $5-million to improve the Sun Dome about five years ago, according to a USF media guide, which said the roof is made from "21 tons of woven Teflon-coated fiberglass, reinforced and shaped by a network of steel retaining cables."'

In all, the guide says, the roof fabric measures 90,000 square feet.

The bottom line, though, is that air-supported roofs just aren't the way to go anymore, LaPan said.

"The technology is obsolete," LaPan said. "The last (facility with an air-supported roof) built in the U.S. was built in 1984."