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MU's vision coming into focus

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - The lot immediately to the east of Joan C. Edwards Stadium sat vacant one day last week, save for a few workers, surveyors and some heavy equipment.

That was temporary, as the action has picked up. Somebody, something made that lot so flat it almost shines. A year or so from now, the much-discussed indoor practice facility will shine, rising above the stadium rim and changing the landscape of Marshall athletics.

A few blocks east on Fifth Avenue, the replacement for the Veterans Memorial Field House is chugging toward completion. That is the soccer complex, due to be ready for an alumni game on Aug. 23.

Back at the stadium, the four new, large, long-since-rented sky suites are under roof and being built out. From the inside, they look as if they could double as racquetball courts.

A few million dollars still need to be raised for the Vision Campaign, but MU athletic director Mike Hamrick is more than confident. Now, he can show donors concrete (literal and figurative) evidence of this $33.5 million endeavor.

"I'm not really worried when these things are going to get finished," Hamrick said. "I was always worried when they were going to be started. If they're started, they'll get finished.

"When I saw that bulldozer out there [on the practice facility site] two weeks ago, I was a happy camper."

The bulldozers and heavy equipment have long been shipped out of the soccer complex, which has a table-flat pitch made of modern-day AstroTurf. More grass-like than the FieldTurf at Edwards Stadium, it qualifies as FIFA 2-star surface. (AstroTurf's motto these days: "More fiber, less fill.")

Last week, groundwork was laid for the 1,000-seat bleachers, and those will be erected in a hurry. The 15,000-square foot building is enclosed, the press box's exterior is finished and the interior rooms are well defined.

Those rooms will be roomy, too. Let's put it this way: Locker rooms - men's team, women's team, two for visitors and a separate room for officials - training rooms and restrooms will put the football facilities of Hamrick's playing days to shame. And the long walk from both teams to Sam Hood Field will be a distant memory.

The lighting is top-notch and the aesthetics will be, too, with a soccer-themed entrance among the highlights.

As promised, the monument to veterans has been preserved from the Field House and incorporated into the side of the building facing Fifth Avenue - seamlessly, it appears.

MU gave $100,000 to the local parks and recreation board, which built a children's park adjoining the complex - a potential godsend for parents at youth soccer events.

And there will be plenty of those. The U.S. Youth Soccer Association Region 1 championships that the Huntington area hosted in 2009 and 2010 will return in 2015 and 2016, and the new MU field becomes the logical championship-match venue.

Conceivably, the 135,000-square foot indoor practice facility could host a match, too. As it is, it will facilitate many things beyond a full-field football practice - full meets can be held on the 300-meter track, field events and all. With netting, a respectable baseball practice can take place, and golfers can see at least the first 75 yards of their practice shots. And so on.

Equally exciting are the adjacent athletic hall of fame, athletic-academic center and sports medicine center. The expansion of the academic facilities will be amazing, contrasted with what is in place now - a single room in the Shewey Building with 10 working computers, if that many.

There will be a 15-station computer lab in the new building, but that hardly will be all. The 14,156 square feet also will include a writing center, an open tutoring area, private tutor rooms, a classroom or three, a 75-seat auditorium, a quiet study area and other amenities.

The sports medicine center will be a bit larger at 19,955 square feet and will provide a stunning upgrade in that area.

When finished in late summer 2014 or thereabouts, the complex will present an entirely new look for passersby on Third Avenue. But from atop the west side of the stadium, the indoor practice venue will dominate the landscape.

Row 56 of the stadium's east side is roughly 50 feet above ground level and the indoor practice facility will rise to about 70 feet. For TV audiences, it will give a much better look than the current picture, which is drab at best.

The new sky suites will have much the same view, and that self-funding project is coming along nicely. There are four large boxes flanking the original Sky Deck floor of coaches' boxes, etc., and they can be divided with a sliding wall if desired. As a not-so-small bonus, a third elevator has been built and the other two cranky shafts replaced.

The four suites have long been spoken for at $60,000 a year for seven years. By the time extra tickets are sold, $250,000 a year will be generated and those suites will be paid off in those seven years.

Technically, that's part of the $33.5 million price tag for the entire menu. Bonding took care of the first $10 million with the rest coming from suite leasing, facilities surcharges on tickets and the privately funded Vision Campaign, which has raised $15 million to date. Hamrick thinks that with the venues taking shape, the rest of the drive can be wrapped up in the next six to eight months.

After all, Marshall followers have a well-founded skepticism about the completion of proposed projects.

"I believe that once people finally see and believe what's happening, that the people who have been hesitant to jump on board ... will jump on board. It's moving along.

"And fans this fall will really start to see that indoor facility come up out of the ground."

When all that finishes, Hamrick doesn't want to stand pat. There is that long-neglected matter of a baseball stadium, which would be a perfect fit for the ACF lot at Third Avenue and 24th Street - and would provide a good campus transition from the indoor facility complex to the soccer complex. Hamrick welcomed the tax-increment financing plan to build a ballpark designed for West Virginia University, sensing a blueprint to follow.

And if the ballpark somehow gets off the ground, what would be next? How about Cam Henderson Center, the graying basketball arena some critics contend was obsolete from its 1981 opening?

Don't worry; it's on Hamrick's mind. For the time being, "the Cam" serves as an example of what not to do when building new venues.

 "That's why when somebody asks me, 'Why are you spending $8 million on a soccer complex, why are you doing a 120-yard football field [indoors] when you can do 60 or 70 yards?' " Hamrick said. "Why are you doing [an] eight-lane straightaway on a track? Why do you need 15,000 square feet for academics?

"Because 10 or 15 years from now, the facilities won't be outdated."

Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, dougsmock@wvgazette.com or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.


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