Faced with an abundance of rumors and speculation about almost every aspect of the University’s plans to renovate Michigan Stadium, those at the head of the endeavor are sticking to one simple phrase:
“The best way to describe the project right now is, ‘A work in progress’,” Michigan Athletic Director Bill Martin said.
Both Martin and University President Mary Sue Coleman recently said in an interview with The Michigan Daily that the renovations will be cost effective and will improve the Big House’s infrastructure while also jiving with the priorities of the athletes, students, alumni and season-ticket holders who pack the stadium every fall.
But both Martin and Coleman say they are unsure how the balance will be struck, or what aspects will be compromised in order to facilitate the undertaking. Furthermore, specifics about funding and structural changes have yet to be worked out.
“We don’t yet have a plan that we can propose to the regents,” Martin said.
To gain a better understanding of how various constituents, including student-ticket holders and current players, feel about what should be taken into consideration in the construction plans, the Athletic Department hired an external firm to administer a survey.
The surveys revealed that the top three priorities were to keep the stadium the biggest in the country, increase noise during games and continue to have no advertising or commerce in the stadium, Martin said.
But making these elements a reality is a complicated matter, particularly in terms of funding.
The current estimates for improving the infrastructure, which, Martin says, is “functionally obsolete,” hovers around $60 million. This estimate covers repairs and bathroom enlargements, improvement of circulation on the concourse and other minor upgrades. The full scope of the major changes – which could include wider seats and isles, luxury seating and improved handicapped seating – remains undetermined. A figure for both major and minor renovations combined has been estimated at $170 million.
Coleman and Martin said many people vouch for building luxury seating options – skyboxes – as an added source of funding for the Big House renovations. These skyboxes could cost enough to pay for the bulk of the project without the University having to turn to advertising to raise money.
“Enclosed seating demands a premium price tag,” Martin said. “The revenue from those seats would be enough to pay for the borrowing of the bonds.”
Coleman and Martin went to great lengths to emphasize their desire to keep advertising out of the Big House.
“We don’t want signs plastered all over the place,” Coleman said. “It diminishes the Michigan brand and takes away from the meaning of the block ‘M’,” she said.
But Martin admits that advertising would be an efficient way to pay for the operation. “The idea of no advertising is nice, and I support it,” Martin said. “But it could be a major source of revenue.”
If enclosed seating does officially become part of the plan, the look of Michigan Stadium will be dramatically altered. Because the stadium is built into the ground, the lowest part is already quite near the water table, Coleman said.
It is therefore impossible to do anything but increase the size of the part of the stadium that is above ground level.
“The scale of Michigan Stadium will have to change,” Martin said. “And so we’re not sure yet if (in terms of number of seats) it will still be the Big House, or the even bigger house or not the Big House.”
The University has hired HNTB, an architectural firm out of Kansas City, to help draw up preliminary designs. It is also working with University architect Douglas Hanna to figure out the complex logistics.
Whatever the project entails, Coleman is confident because several surveys have been returned and opinions garnered, the overall sentiment about renovations will be one of support. She said she believes that the reaction will be far more positive than the backlash that occurred when the “Halo,” a maize and blue ring that encircled the stadium, was put up.
“The Halo didn’t improve the stadium in any way,” Coleman said. “The changes that we want to make will.”
While support of efforts to increase handicap-accessible seating, fixing bathrooms and improving circulation is wide, there is a large group of people who are very much opposed to luxury seating. John Pollock, founder of www.savethebighouse.com has created a petition protesting the addition of luxury seating and supporting renovations that will provide amenities accessible to all fans.
“The unity of the fans will be undermined if we start dividing people into classes,” Pollack said. “From a value standpoint, Michigan stands for equality of opportunity. Its mission is to ameliorate divisions, not enshrine wealth and power in glass and steel.”
While plans are still very much up in the air, Martin and Coleman said they are determined to make the project meet the goals and priorities of the stadium’s stakeholders.
“We’re taking our time,” Martin said. “We want to do this the right way.”