The University of North Alabama appears to be inching closer to finding a new home for its football team, but officials are stressing that no formal announcement is imminent.
At a Student Government Association open forum last week, plans were revealed detailing possible designs and potential locations for a new multi-purpose stadium that would serve as the home for UNA football and soccer, as well as other events such as concerts and graduations.
Plans under consideration call for the construction of a 10,000- to 12,000-seat stadium.
One potential site is on campus next to Flowers Hall and the Athletic Annex where the football team currently practices and the soccer team plays its home matches. Mike Lane Field, which is home to the university baseball team, also is located on that site but could be on the move as well.
The cost of a new stadium remains in flux until a final decision is made about whether to leave the Florence school-district owned Braly Stadium.
Director of Athletics Mark Linder emphasized a new stadium project would not use any public funds.
Financing would be come through private donations and/or student fees ranging between $8 and $12 per credit hour. The student fees are just an approximation. That number could be lower depending on how much capital is raised through private donations.
“This is all an investigation and exploratory right now,” Linder said Friday afternoon. “We’ve been meeting with students, and now that that process is close to being over, the students on the work group will report back to the stadium work group and come up with some sort of a statement to send to the president (Ken Kitts) in the form of a report. I don’t think you are anywhere near close to an announcement.”
Linder said during last week's work group meeting the estimated cost for the stadium is “very rough” at this point. Once all the feedback is collected, the university would ask for an updated estimate.
Chase Holcombe, president of the student government association, said the new stadium would seat less people than Braly Stadium, which currently holds around 14,215 people.
Holcombe added that it is a national trend for colleges to cut the amount of seating in stadiums to emphasize and increase the “fan experience.”
He said Auburn University recently removed seating from Jordan-Hare Stadium, and the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s future stadium will hold less people than Legion Field.
The city of Florence and UNA currently share Braly Stadium for sporting events, but it is owned by the Florence school district. UNA only leases the stadium for football games.
“You wouldn’t spend a lot of time painting the walls or fixing up a place that you are renting,” Holcombe said of the lease arrangement. “We can’t have any purple or gold. We can’t have UNA type of stuff in Braly just because it is a shared venue.”
Architectural renderings of the proposed stadium show it would be shaped as a horseshoe with seating that connects the home and away side stands around one end zone. The other end zone would feature a plaza area that is designated for fans to hang out, eat and watch the game.
Two possible locations are being considered for the stadium:
• Off Pine Street on UNA’s campus, where Mike D. Lane field and the Pride of Dixie marching band’s practice field are currently located.
• At the former Eliza Coffee Memorial Hospital property off Alabama Street in west Florence.
Last week, the city of Florence agreed to convey land at Cox Creek Parkway to UNA for a baseball and softball complex. The property is adjacent to the university’s softball and beach volleyball courts at the intersection of Cox Creek Parkway and Chisholm Road.
Holcombe stressed that the decision to move the baseball field started two years ago, and the most recent land acquisition was not connected to the possible new football stadium.
According to UNA documents, it would take 12 to 16 months to relocate Mike D. Lane field, and it would take 26 to 28 months to finish a multipurpose stadium.
“There isn’t much time for overlap with the projects,” Holcombe said.
Linder said if the Pine Street location is selected for the new stadium, the marching band would either practice on the turf field next to Flowers Hall, or on the university’s intramural field.
He said Lloyd Jones, UNA’s band director, is aware that the marching band may have to relocate.
Holcombe said more parking is available near the intramural field, where most the band members are parking currently.
“I know, for example, we have College View Church of Christ up there beside this view (Pine Street location) as well. Regardless of where we put it, we are going to be mindful of different stakeholders just because it would affect traffic flows and different things like that,” Holcombe said.
Linder said Michelle Eubanks, who holds a seat on the Florence City Council representing District 4, brought the ECM property to UNA’s attention.
She is also a member of the work group UNA created for the new stadium planning.
“She just asked if we had considered that, and we said, ‘Well, no, but we can certainly see if it could fit there,’” Linder said.
During a recent meeting of the work group, Rev. Christopher Reeves of Greater St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church offered to host a public meeting to discuss how an off-campus location would affect the Florence community.
“We are trying to look at all possible locations so that when we are collecting feedback, we are not necessarily pigeon-holing anyone into one possible location or nothing,” Holcombe said.
Jason Stevens, a resident of the neighborhood next to the property on Alabama Street, said he thinks it would be more beneficial for the university to build the stadium on Pine Street.
“Quite frankly, I would rather it not be over here,” Steven said of the former ECM property. “That’s awfully close to our neighborhood.”
Other residents of the area said noise pollution, light pollution, trash, traffic, parking and loss of property value could be concerns for them.
UNA President Ken Kitts told the stadium work group not to factor state allocated dollars into the funding mechanism for the stadium. Kitts said the university does not want to jeopardize Project 208’s success, which is his project to secure more state allocated money for the university.
Holcombe said the two primary avenues of funding for the stadium would be through private donors, an $8 to $12 per credit hour student fee, or a combination of both options.
He added that the university would issue a 30-year floating bond as well.
“If we were to have zero private gifts, zero private donations and the cost were to fall 100 percent onto the students, we could fund a stadium with the $8 to $12 fee,” Holcombe said. “If a large donor gave a significant amount, that number could go down.”
He said the work group used West Texas University as a model for the idea of a student fee.
UNA student Joseph Isom asked if merchandise and concession sales could be an alternative to fund the stadium.
Linder said concession sales do not generate as much money as people think they do. He said after he visited Auburn, he learned that only its concession sales account for only 1 percent of the athletic budget.
As for security, Linder said the university would still work with Florence city police and UNA police on game days. He added that good lighting would be a top priority to increase the safety around the stadium.
“As always, we take the safety of our students and the community seriously,” Linder said.
(Harley Duncan is editor-in-chief at The Flor-Ala, the student newspaper for the University of North Alabama. His report is reprinted with permission. TimesDaily Sports Editor Gregg Dewalt also contributed to this report.)