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UNC Smith Center renovations, or replacement, a ways off: some thoughts

I wrote a story earlier today about the Smith Center at North Carolina, and about how any real plans to renovate it or replace it appear to be a ways away – and probably a long, long ways away. You can read it right here.

I wanted to follow up with some thoughts, too. I was a bit surprised to hear Bubba Cunningham, the UNC athletic director, say that plans to renovate or replace the Smith Center have been “on the back burner” – and stuck there, no less, for the past 12 months.

Cunningham has gone on record more than once about his desire to upgrade the building. The Smith Center has one relatively narrow concourse for both the upper and lower levels, and it gets crowded. The concessions stands routinely have long lines. The bathrooms – at least the men's rooms – aren't pretty, and feature the never-appealing trough-style urinal.

And, most important, the Smith Center lacks luxury suites. There are some small booths between the upper and lower levels, but those hardly resemble the kinds of suites that became common in arenas after the Smith Center opened in 1986. Without luxury suites and other kinds of premium seating, UNC is losing out on an opportunity to make money – more money – off its most popular sport.

On the other hand, this news isn't all that surprising. Renovating the Smith Center would likely cost in the tens of millions. Michigan State recently announced a plan to renovate the Breslin Center for about $30 million. Michigan recently renovated Crisler Arena for about $50 million.

How much would it cost to upgrade the Smith Center? There's no easy way to add luxury suites. The physical structure of the building would likely have to be altered significantly, even if UNC followed the model at Michigan and suites -- or some kind of other premium area -- without a view of the court.

That does sound like that might be the most realistic option if UNC went with renovation over replacement, though. As I wrote in the story, Cunningham took a tour of Crisler's Arena, and he liked what he saw. He said:

“Michigan did an incredible retro fit of Crisler Arena. Didn't add a lot of premium space that had a view of the court. Had quite a bit of space that didn't have a view of the court but then your seats, obviously, were courtside.”

What Cunningham described might be the most feasible approach at UNC, where the Smith Center would undoubtedly prove difficult to renovate. Given the structure of the building – there's not much space between the upper and lower levels – it'd be difficult, and likely incredibly costly, to insert suites between seating levels. Putting premium space somewhere else, though, could be an option. Another potential option: Knock out the upper level seats on one end of the arena and stack some luxury suites there.

Regardless of anyone's thoughts on this, though, it seems that UNC will remain in the Smith Center for years to come. There has been lots of talk about renovating it, and some talk about replacing it, but for now that's all this has been – talk. The negatives at this point -- the cost of the project, and undertaking it at a time of uncertainty in college sports -- outweigh the potential gains.

Andrew Carter is the UNC athletics beat reporter for The News & Observer and Charlotte Observer. Follow him on Twitter at @_andrewcarter .

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