NASHVILLE - The long-planned project to renovate and expand the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's football and athletic training facilities with a new stand-alone building now has a new cost estimate: $22 million.
Last week, State Building Commission members approved increasing cost estimates for the project from $20 million to $22 million, the latest in a series of increases as the project evolved.
Meanwhile, state officials later this month are scheduled to select a designer expected to begin turning concepts into reality.
UTC hopes to accomplish two things with the project:
* Renovate an existing 26,300-square-foot space in the nearly 37-year-old McKenzie Arena, which in addition to being the home of Mocs basketball games also houses most of the university's athletic teams and functions under increasingly cramped and dilapidated conditions.
* Build a new 39,250-square-foot adjoining building to be known as the Wolford Family Athletics Center which will house the Mocs football program with ancillary exercise facilities and more.
The new center is to be named after UTC football All-American Bucky Wolford, a Chattanooga businessman and longtime university booster who died last year.
UTC's project has officially been on the State Building Commission's books since 2016, with the cost initially pegged at $15.53 million. Of that amount, $13 million was to come from Tennessee State School Bond Authority (TSSBA) funds and another $2.533 million in private gift funds.
But even at that time, a then-UT system official told the Times Free Press the still-evolving project's scope would likely end up costing at least $18.5 million, an amount which was recognized by the State Building Commission in early 2018. Months later, that was raised to $20 million.
Under last week's building commission approval, the total project is now pegged at $22 million with School Bond Authority funds covering $18.5 million and gifts accounting for $3.5 million. Of that amount, the maximum allowable construction cost would be $17.73 million. The designer/architect fee, based on a percentage of costs, would be $1.27 million, according to a building commission document.
Soaring costs on state building projects have been a major recent concern with the State Building Commission, whose members include the House and Senate speakers, the state finance commissioner and the state comptroller, treasurer and secretary of state.
State Architect Ann McGauran told the Times Free Press the overall project a few years ago was anticipated to be $20 million because the project's scope was still under consideration.
"Usually when they start a project, they have some understanding of the scope of what they want to do," McGauran said. "And then they do a program verification where they get into a more detailed program that really encompasses the full scope."
McGauran said when UTC did that, "they discovered that there were other ancillary component pieces that needed to be part of the project. And so they brought it forward at the beginning of the design process, knowing it was going to be a bigger project than they originally had anticipated."
One of the issues appears to be squeezing everything on the available land in the area, located in the north section of campus in the 4th, 5th and Mabel streets area.
UTC officials had no immediate comment Friday.
A 'necessary' revitalization
In a July 2019 document, UTC described the project as a "necessary" revitalization, saying "operational difficulties of the Football program impact recruiting and impose a false ceiling on the team's success."
"The existing arrangement is a happenstance that evolved through noble efforts dedicated to making do with available resources," the document says. "Moving the football team to an additon at McKenzie Arena will free up a significant amount of area within the existing arena that the non-football teams desperately need."
The football program is expected to be a major beneficiary with plans for a new locker room, coaches' offices and meeting rooms, along with a university-wide multipurpose space.
It includes new exercise facilities and a major revamp of audio-visual operations.
The new building will connect to McKenzie between Gate 1 and the main loading ramp off the corner of 5th and Mabel streets.
There will also be a major renovation inside McKenzie Arena, which includes new locker rooms for the men's and women's basketball teams, new working spaces for the athletics staff and coaches, with offices in the arena and the refurbishing of a number of restrooms.
The arena also is used for a variety of non-athletic entertainment events.
'We know very little'
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said of the project that "you've got to have nice facilities to recruit great student athletics." He also noted "Bucky Wolford was a great supporter" of the university.
But Watson said neither he nor Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, know much about the project "other than just a general understanding that I think the general public has."
He later added "I think it's fair to say that Sen. Gardenhire and I both sit on Finance and it's a little bit either frustrating or concerning to us that UTC has these kind of projects and we know very little about them."
Watson and fellow Finance Committee members usually drill down into projects that a governor recommends in his proposed budget.
Another concern Watson has is the State Building Commission's recent issues with soaring project cost estimates.
"Some of that's related to the market place - we understand that," Watson said. "But some of it's also related to we have not been doing a really good job at estimating the cost of some of these projects."
They've increased "and then we have to add more money to it because we've underestimated what the cost would be," Watson added. "This apears to be another example of that."
Skyrocketing building costs have been a major issue with State Building Commission members Senate Speaker and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, Comptroller Justin Wilson and Secretary of State Tre Hargett, who went on a tear last month demanding administration officials crack down.
Prime Exhibit 1 was the new park inn at Fall Creek Falls State Park in Van Buren County, where costs ballooned by $11 million or 37.3 percent, going from $29.4 million to $40.4 million.
The state's new General Services Department commissioner and other officials attributed part of the problem to getting contractors to work in the remote area, as well as the state's annual inflation rates being only half of what the reality is on the ground in Tennessee's booming economy.
But General Services Commissioner Christi Branscom, a former construction company owner, also dryly observed "we had an expert architect come in to give us the estimate. No offense to architects in the audience, but they're not always the best estimators."
She said the state would begin using professional "construction estimators who work in the markets every single day."
Good to her word, Branscom returned last week to the State Building Commission. She sought permission to proceed with issuing requests for qualifications to hire professional project cost estimators.
Building Commission members unanimously approved it without a word.
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.