New University of Idaho arena fulfills university’s mission on many levels

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Moscow Mountain, looming on the horizon and shrouded with rain, was a symbol at a soggy University of Idaho groundbreaking ceremony Thursday that the UI is doing more than building a new basketball venue.

Idaho Central Credit Union Arena is a uniquely Idaho project that resonates with the university’s educational and land grant missions and will also have national significance.

Dennis Becker, College of Natural Resources dean, referenced the former when he pointed out the mass timber arena will be built with wood harvested from the UI Experimental Forest on Moscow Mountain. Idaho companies will manufacture and haul the arena timbers to campus, and when the building is completed in two years, it will be a living laboratory “training the next generation of students how to engineer wood,” Becker said.

The presence of U.S. Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen was testament to how important the project is viewed nationally. A Forest Service planning grant helped the UI in the early stages of designing the 4,200-seat facility and, according to UI President Chuck Staben, “it put the stamp of approval on the project.”

Christiansen told the crowd of several hundred gathered under canopies on a gloomy morning that ICCU Arena will be the first mass timber sports arena in the country.

“We are trying to spur more mass timber use in universities,” she said. “University of Idaho, you’re already out front, so way to go. You are an example for other institutions. We can’t wait to see the result of your great vision.”

Increased use of mass timber construction will aid forest management, support logging communities, “contribute to a more sustainable building sector” and spur further developments in wood engineering, Christiansen said.

For the groundbreaking ceremony, Christiansen employed a shovel used by President Theodore Roosevelt in a 1911 tree planting on the UI campus.

Building the arena, now expected to cost $51 million according to interim athletics director Pete Isakson, was helped beyond measure by a $10 million gift from Idaho Central Credit Union, said Isakson, who maintained ground would not have been broken without the contribution.

So far, $43 million has been raised, which has made UI officials confident enough to begin construction. Fundraising is ongoing, and breaking ground gives the university credibility in soliciting the remaining funding, according to Isakson.

“There are people who say ‘we want to see dirt moved before we start giving,’ ” he said.

ICCU CEO Kent Oram likened the impact of his company’s gift to an experience on a regular morning bike ride. On the bike, he looks for his house, he said. The conclusion of his ride and breaking ground are similar, he said. “There’s the finish line. We can make it.”

The UI moved unsuccessfully in fits and starts for 50 years to build a new basketball arena. The ICCU gift in early 2018 that propelled the project to the groundbreaking stage occurred under outgoing President Chuck Staben, who will be succeeded as UI president by Scott Green on July 1.

“I’ve got less than one week,” Staben said before the groundbreaking ceremony. “It’s nice to see this come to fruition in the last week.”

Staben said he identified a new basketball arena as his top fundraising priority in 2014, even before he officially became UI president. The fundraising campaign went public in 2016.

In remarks on Thursday, Staben acknowledged his initial thought was to find “the cheapest way to get 4,000 people into a basketball arena.” But he was consistently challenged by UI alumnus Dirk Kempthorne, a former Idaho governor and U.S. senator, and UI special assistant to the president Michael Perry to pursue a project that was “stunning.”

The mass timber construction concept that emerged in conversations with College of Natural Resources and Idaho timber company officials fulfilled that, Staben said.

When the new arena opens in fall 2021, “I would love to be at that first game,” he said.

In addition to a competition court, the arena will have a practice court, locker and conference facilities, and coaches offices. In addition to hosting games, it will serve as a concert and convention venue as well as a gathering place for alumni.

UI women’s basketball coach Jon Newlee said the new arena will have a large impact on recruiting.

“I have lost kids because we have not had an arena. That’s when I knew ‘OK, there’s an issue here.’ That’s probably even more of an issue on the men’s side.”

Absent from the ceremony was UI men’s coach Don Verlin, who was placed on administrative leave May 23 after a review of the basketball program disclosed three possible NCAA violations. Isakson declined to discuss Verlin’s status as it relates to the new ICCU arena.

In his address at the groundbreaking ceremony, Isakson did point out the last time the UI built a facility for basketball was in 1928. Over Memorial Bym’s’ decades of use, it created for Vandals fans “memories that you hold dear.”

“Ninety-one years later, we’re going to do that again,” he said.

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