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U of I plans Assembly Hall work starting in 2014

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — A long-discussed plan to renovate 50-year-old Assembly Hall at the University of Illinois should start next year and, while cutting seating capacity, include adding air conditioning and suites, Athletic Director Mike Thomas said Thursday.

University trustees still need to sign off on the details of the $160 million plan, Thomas said, but construction should start in March 2014 and wrap up by November 2016.

“Every inch” of the saucer-shaped arena will be renovated, he said.

“The wow factor will reflect the history of our great program,” Thomas said at a news conference.

In addition to air conditioning and the addition of 18 suites, student courtside seating will increase so that most of the court will be ringed by students.

The plan also calls for widening concourses and reducing the capacity from the current 17,200 to just over 15,000, he said. The current gray seats will be replaced in the school’s colors, orange and blue.

Work is expected to be done in phases to avoid forcing basketball teams to find other places to play home games, Thomas said. At one point, playing some games in Chicago or elsewhere was discussed.

Thomas expects about three-quarters of the cost to be covered by donations, money he and others are raising now. Selling naming rights for the building remains part of the financial plan, but Thomas wouldn’t provide details on where that stands.

“I’m confident that we’ll get that done but, like I said, at this point in time, we’re progressing,” he said.

Students last month also voted to pay a $25-a-semester fee to help cover costs.

Thomas hopes to take the plan to trustees May 29.

The university has talked for years about either renovating or replacing Assembly Hall. The effort was temporarily put on hold on early 2009 as the economy weakened.

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