To some folks, it may seem as if the new Alaska Airlines Center sprang up over just one snowy winter and one sunny summer.
But the facts are different. UAA started making the case for the new center dating back to 2007. And a study of the Wells Fargo Sports Complex a full 10 years ago pointed out its limitations and the need for more space for UAA Athletics.
Along the way, Anchorage and Alaska and the United States experienced the significant economic downturn of 2008, an event that briefly chilled ambitions. But the slowdown didn’t last, in part because so much preliminary work had justified the addition of this new public asset to the city. Two community surveys documented public support for it, and a bond measure in 2011 provided $60 million for construction of the $109 million facility.
So this week, UAA opens the doors to a facility aimed at serving both the UAA community and the Anchorage and Alaska community. The opening ceremonies Sept. 5 at 4 p.m. will be a testament to both vision and persistence.
Bill Spindle, vice chancellor for administrative services, was there for most of the journey.
“When I got here in 2007, we were already working on it,” Spindle said recently. The Alaska Legislature had just allocated $1 million to plan for the new center. But just a month later, then-Gov. Sarah Palin vetoed the money. But that million for planning eventually came back, plus another $15 million for planning, and the arena was off and running.
“The emphasis for the arena is on the community. We want the community to come to UAA. We want this to be a university town,” Spindle said. “Yes, we will have plenty of athletics in the center, but we will also have lots of community events.”
To start, the facility is hosting 10 days of get-acquainted happenings. Check out the Alaska Airlines Center website for a full listing of events that extends from ribbon cutting and the Springhill Suites volleyball tourney beginning Sept. 5 to a community run the next day. A showcase of faculty research and creative activity will be staged over afternoons and evenings for four days. Parking at the new arena will be free during the first 10 days of get-to-know-you festivities.
Other fun events aimed at inviting in the Anchorage community include a free drive-in movie and food truck rodeo on Sept. 12 and a local music and arts festival, Howlapalooza on Sept. 14.
Keith Hackett, UAA’s new athletic director, refers to the facility as a “communiversity” center. He’s been on the job a full year, coming to UAA from the University of Nevada where he was the senior associate athletic director for internal affairs, overseeing football, track and field/cross country and baseball programs there.
“I know I will never have another opportunity in my career as special as this one,” Hackett said, “getting to be the first occupant of this brand new facility.” He’s committed to making Anchorage feel at home.
One of the amenities the community will notice early on is a recreational running and jogging track, called “Raven’s Roost,” Hackett said. It was made possible by a gift from Skinny Raven Sports. “This is not a competitive training track,” Hackett said. “This is for the community to come in out of the weather and walk or jog around this track.”
It will open Sept. 15, he said, and offer hours along the lines of 7-10 a.m., Noon-1 p.m. and 5-7 p.m. during the weekday. No admission is planned.
Another East-side community pleaser is likely to be the new restaurant, Varsity Sports Grill, opening Oct. 1 with popular and upscale dishes, plus beer and wine.
Seawolf Athletics also just announced a “Family Pack Pass,” an affordable opportunity to support UAA sports in the new arena.
“We want young fans. We want them to be able to experience college athletics,” Hackett continued. “What better way than coming to watch a few matches?”
In addition, the facility will host world-class entertainers in a uniquely sized venue with state-of-the-art sound equipment. Tim McGraw is just the beginning, he said.
He also foresees high school athletics in the facility, including volleyball and some of the very popular statewide basketball games that bring rural residents to town for fierce competition. He mentioned that Anchorage School District officials have visited and checked out the facility, but no high school graduations are yet scheduled. “They want to watch us go through our December and May graduations, and see how we handle them,” Hackett said.
But Hackett also remains very committed to students at UAA. He considers this a shakedown year to see how recreational-use students use the Wells Fargo Sports Complex and the new arena auxiliary gym. Anchorage residents will still be able to buy passes for use of the WFSC pool, cardio and weight rooms, and the running track, Hackett said. No public use passes to the new arena are on the agenda.
All residential students can walk through the facility on their way to class; a new coffee kiosk along the main pedestrian path through the center of the facility ensures they can grab some ever-important caffeine on their way.
Hackett believes the new center will be a game-changer for UAA. In fact, all prospective students and their families begin their UAA tours at its front door. “This is the crown jewel of our campus,” he said. “Without a doubt, it will have an impact on how people view the University of Alaska, this campus and the whole city.”
Written by Kathleen McCoy, UAA Office of University Advancement