UTC hopes to begin work on McKenzie Arena, new athletic center in several months

·5 min read

Jan. 23—NASHVILLE — University of Tennessee at Chattanooga officials hope to begin work in the next few months on the renovation of McKenzie Arena and construction of a new adjoining football/athletic training center.

Costs for the project, tentatively listed in 2016 in State Building Commission documents at $18.5 million, have escalated over the years for a variety of reasons, including additions, complexity of the site, the inclusion of costs for furnishings, equipment and information technology, as well as heating, air and ventilation and other building systems, officials said.

The onset of the coronavirus pandemic and, most recently, construction inflation in areas ranging from steel to drywall, haven't helped, either.

Earlier this month, State Building Commission members approved the latest revision in project budget and funding, raising the amount from what had at that time grown to a total $29.15 million project to what now is expected to top out at $34.65 million.

The commission also added a "maximum price guarantee," which the construction project cannot exceed.

Plans call for renovating 26,400 square feet at the arena, which opened in 1982. And it provides funding for construction of a new, adjacent 37,250-square-foot football and student athletic training center. That's to be named the Wolford Family Athletic Center, in honor of UTC football All-American James L. "Bucky" Wolford, a former UT board trustee and UTC donor who died in 2017.

Tyler Forrest, UTC's vice chancellor for finance and administration, said Friday in an email the university hopes to have construction completed in early 2024, adding that although authorized, it may not be necessary to use the entire $34.65 million allowable amount. But the projects are needed, he said.

"The Wolford Family Athletic Center will be an exceptional addition to McKenzie Arena and a big win for Mocs Athletics," Forrest said in an email. "The building will provide much-needed additional space for student-athletes, as well as a multipurpose space that is needed for both athletic programs and the campus community."

It also serves to anchor one of UTC's primary gateway entrances along Fourth Street on the campus' northern edge, he said.

At one point in 2018, UTC officials debated whether to build the Wolford center on campus or at Engle Stadium.

UTC officials had originally planned a groundbreaking ceremony this past November but canceled it amid uncertainty. The majority source of the project's funding comes in the form of Tennessee State School Bond Authority dollars — $25.65 million — along with $3.5 million in gifts. But as approved by the State Building Commission earlier this month, there's a new wrinkle with UTC contributing $5.5 million in university plant funds under an auxiliary-athletics category.

The designer for the project, approved by commission members in August 2019, is Chattanooga-based Derthick, Henley & Wilkerson Architects. The building commission awarded the construction contract in November that same year to Birmingham, Ala.-headquartered Hoar Construction.

The seven-member State Building Commission is comprised of the governor, the House and Senate speakers, the state's finance commissioner and the secretary of state, state comptroller and state treasurer. Gov. Bill Lee, who like other governors rarely attends SBC meetings, was not present at the latest meeting.

'We've had challenges'

"It's a project that we've had challenges with from just getting the numbers right on it," Forrest said in a Times Free Press phone interview Friday. He said the original $18.5 million listed in state documents was actually a $22 million initial estimate. And even that didn't include a number of things. It "was simply too low," Forrest said.

The advent of the coronavirus pandemic contributed to problems as well, Forrest said, citing construction inflation and other issues. State Building Commission members on Jan. 13 voted to increase the overall project by $5.5 million, taking it from $29.15 million to the $34.65 million number.

"I'm not surprised about the building material inflation," Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, chair of the legislature's Fiscal Review Committee, said in a phone interview last week.

But Gardenhire said he was surprised by the cancellation of the planned Nov. 23 groundbreaking ceremony, "for some reason they put it off. I don't know why they put it off. I showed up — and nobody was there.

"We may have to have some serious discussions with UTC people about this and other projects they want to have," Gardenhire added.

Forrest said in the Friday interview the project was delayed "because of those significant inflationary issues we had to deal with. We have since, as you know, gone back to the [State Building Commission] and gotten the approval to increase the project size and now moving forward with getting the contract awards. And then we'll have a groundbreaking soon after."

He said officials hope that will come in the next two to three months.

The overall project calls for renovating McKenzie Arena's Gate 1 area and adjacent spaces as well as the new addition which includes athletic training rooms, football locker rooms, various campus meeting rooms and a large, multipurpose room that can be used by athletics and also by the campus community.

"Which is something we need for both of those areas in particular," Forrest added.

Existing space renovations include McKenzie's men's and women's locker rooms.

"Quite a bit of areas touched there on the arena, which we think will make a significant enhancement not just for the arena but also the gateway to campus knowing the vast majority of visitors coming into campus every day come off Fourth Street," Forrest said.

"We now feel confident with these numbers and feel confident they will match the bid market appropriately in order to move the project forward," Forrest said. "We have the preliminary bids in hand from the general contractor and know that these numbers are where we need to be and are ready to move forward thanks to the State Building Commission's recent action."

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.