Stephen O'Connell Center, Gainesville, Fla.

The University of Florida boasts one of the top athletic programs in the country, so it only seems fitting that the sports arena in which events are held also is top notch. That’s why the University is undertaking a monumental renovation of Stephen O’Connell Center — a $64.5-million project that was founded in a unique partnership between the University of Florida and the University Athletic Association.

Opened in 1980, O’Connell Center has long been synonymous with “all things Gators.” And although the University has worked hard over the years to keep the building in great shape, many features are outdated and the operational systems are all original.

“The University of Florida has set a goal to be a ‘top 10’ public university; it already boasts one of the top athletic programs in the country and we need to have an arena that reflects this same level of excellence,” said Lynda Reinhart, director of the Stephen C. O’Connell Center.

As Reinhart explained, in 2011 the University Athletic Association (UAA) commissioned Populous to conduct a study of what renovations were possible for the arena. The basis for the design and project budget was developed based on that study. The project went to bid in the Spring 2014 and the first design meetings were held on July 1, 2014. 

“The renovation was originally scheduled to begin in March 2015; however, the budget could not support the fast track construction schedule so it was agreed to delay the project until March 2016 to allow time to look at more economical ways to achieve our goals,” Reinhart said.

Working within our budget without sacrificing key elements of the design and schedule has been and continues to be the greatest challenge facing the O’Connell Center team. 

“As the home venue for 7 NCAA Division 1 teams, we have a very defined window to complete this project,” Reinhart said. “In addition, the project is being funded by a mix of University, UAA, and private donor funds and we have an obligation to make sure the expectations of all parties are met. We only get one chance to do a project of this magnitude, so we have to get it right.”

Reinhart explained that the collaboration is unique in that, while the UAA does not own O’Connell Center, it recognizes the value of a multipurpose campus arena and is willing to invest in it. O’Connell Center is a state of Florida building and UAA, a private entity, rents the facility. 

“On a historic campus that is more than 150 years old, competition for facility funding is fierce,” Reinhart said. “In its most recent legislative budget request, UF noted over $45 million in deferred maintenance costs but were only appropriated $16.7 million. Without their commitment to absorb the majority of the costs of the renovation, it wouldn’t happen.”

Exciting Changes Ahead

The scope of the renovation includes a seating bowl update, the addition of premium seating areas, installation of a state-of-the-art center-hung scoreboard, upgrades to team spaces and an enhanced concourse to improve the fan experience.

“There are so many exciting facets to this project,” Reinhart said. “The building is essentially being gutted and everything is being replaced.”

One of the most visible changes is the creation of a grand entrance on the east side of the building.  The center currently has four small gates, none of which particularly stands out as a main entrance. 

This new entrance will feature a large exterior plaza that leads into almost 20,000 square feet of open lobby space. 

“We are also completely rebuilding the arena bowl seating to create a new concourse that allows for 360-degree circulation,” Reinhart said. “The new concourse will feature a sideline club that opens into the arena, enhanced concessions and merchandise locations as well as triple the number of restrooms.”

The center currently does not have cooking capabilities in the venue and are adding two cooking locations for concessions and the club space, as well as a prep kitchen on the service level for touring events. 

The arena will also be getting technology upgrades with new state-of-the-art LED lighting, sound and video systems. While not visible to the general public, the electrical, plumbing and HVAC systems are all being completely replaced as well. 

“We anticipate 40-percent energy savings postrenovation due to these upgrades,” Reinhart said. “The project is currently on track to be LEED Gold certified.”

To accommodate this major overhaul, the building will be closed from mid-March through December of 2016. 

“We have worked with our regular event clients to either host their events earlier in the year before we close or find alternate event locations,” Reinhart said.

For athletics, the volleyball team will play their home matches at Santa Fe College, a local state college and the basketball teams will play preseason games either on the road or at neutral sites within the state. Swimming and Diving will also forego hosting home meets in Fall 2016.

Reinhart said the biggest impact for the university is the spring and summer commencement ceremonies. 

“We typically host 11 individual graduations to accommodate over 6,000 graduates in the spring,” Reinhart said. “These ceremonies will be combined into four large ceremonies and hosted in the football stadium.  For summer, the two ceremonies we typically host will be divided into a number of smaller ceremonies and hosted at other venues on campus; it is too hot in August to utilize the stadium for those ceremonies.”

Although the renovation of O’Connell Center means a new and improved experience for athletes and visitors alike, it will also greatly impact the University of Florida, as a whole.

“O’Connell Center is the face of the university,” Reinhart said. “Most people who come to campus never go in the classroom space, but they come into O’Connell Center. Whether it’s in person for a game, concert or to see their child/grandchild graduate, or watching a live event on TV, our building is sometimes the only part of UF that the public gets to experience. These renovations will not only significantly enhance the fan experience, but enable us to continue to represent this university as the world class institution it is.”

Interviewed for this story: Lynda Reinhart, (352) 392-5500