NAU Skydome showing its age…time for a tummy tuck

The ’60s and ’70s were a period of some of Northern Arizona University’s greatest growth.  It seemed like an appropriate time to put up an athletic stadium.

And that’s exactly what the administration did, creating one of the most architecturally unique indoor sports facilities in the country.

In 1977, engineers threw together a bunch of glue laminated all-wood beams, and the J. Lawrence Walkup Skydome was born.  Even though that was 33 years ago, the structure was actually designed by computer.  The Skydome was the largest clear-span timber dome in the world, a distinction it held until 1983 when the Tacoma Dome was built.

But there has been a lot of wear and tear over those three decades of use, including five Big Sky Conference Tournaments, and fire and safety codes have changed through the years.  The Skydome is deficient in many of those areas.

J. Lawrence retired in 1979 after 21 years of service as NAU’s president.  Now it’s time for the building that bears his name to get a new lease on life.

The Skydome needs a facelift.  And it’s finally getting one.

The project is part of the Stimulus Plan for Economic and Educational Development and is being funded by the Arizona Lottery (80%) and the university.

But how do you complete a major renovation in a facility that is used by sports teams year-round?

The facility will be shut down immediately following the next football season and hopefully re-opened by August of 2011.  So the main revenue-generating sport will not be affected.

But men’s and women’s basketball will probably have to play in the Rolle Activity Center, where they play non-conference games.  And track and field may have to find a large indoor warehouse space somewhere in Flagstaff to practice, and then go to indoor meets elsewhere.  And tennis is another story altogether.

But one part of the renovation project will affect all the sports.  The weight room and training facility will have to be re-located and use schedules juggled according to space limitations that result.

However, there are some people who are looking at a win-win situation here.

Coaches and athletic department personnel will get new offices.  But more importantly, the coaches will have one more tool in the recruiting process.  It always helps to have modern, new facilities to tour on the recruits’ campus visits.

The media will get something, too.  They will have a new press box – with an elevator so they don’t have to climb up the narrow steps any more.  Right now, it is suspended from the ceiling; the new one will be supported and ADA compliant.

And then there are the fans, who are supposed to be getting an enhanced viewing experience.  And one more feature they should really appreciate.

The old bathrooms are being replaced with newer, larger ones.

Now that should make everyone happy.