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Smaller arena could replace St. John

St. John Arena has been a part of Ohio State for 56 years, but its time appears to be running out.

Though officials have not yet decided to demolish the aging building, some say they have little use for a such a large and costly venue. And even though the decision to demolish wouldn’t come for at least five years, some officials said, they’ve devised a scenario that would level St. John and replace it with a smaller arena at a different site.

A state-of-the-art facility at the time of its construction, the arena housed the university’s men and women’s basketball teams until the 1998-1999 season, when the Schottenstein Center opened. The men’s team called St. John home during its run to the 1960 national championship, the program’s only title.

“I remember growing up in Columbus, and it was the place to come … at some point it changes, you start new traditions,” said Ben Jay, senior associate athletic director of Finance and Operations at OSU. “It was the home of athletics for many, many years, and those are the things that we’ll all treasure.”

But now, officials are questioning whether the building should be demolished to set a clean slate for new facilities.

“You have a building right now that is by some estimates $30 million in deferred maintenance … and it comes down to somewhat of a financial decision,” Jay said. “Is it worth spending $30 million to fix up a building, or do you take the money and build something new?”

According to the athletic department’s master plan, renovating the arena would require, among other tasks, fixing the heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, addressing power distribution and emergency generators, and replacing 800 bleachers.

Even if officials choose to renovate the building, the arena as it operates now costs the university $1.2 million a year for utilities and other maintenance costs, said Don Patko, assistant athletic director of Facilities Management.

Though expensive, those costs keep the arena functional for the four sports teams housed in the building: men and women’s volleyball, wrestling and gymnastics. Other sports also use the venue.

“We still have the occasional basketball game in there and outside events,” Jay said. “It is a great place for Skull Session,” the ceremony before each home football game where the marching band warms up and the football addresses the crowd.

“I like playing at St. John,” said David Lighty, a senior forward on the men’s basketball team. “It’s real active and alive in there every time we play. I haven’t lost there either.”

Lighty’s undefeated St. John record includes regular season games against Virginia Military Institute in 2007 and Delaware State in 2008, in addition to the team’s 2008 second-round game in the NIT versus California. This season, OSU will play Western Carolina in the arena Dec. 12.

Despite some players’ affinity for the arena, officials have already developed a plan to pursue if they demolish the building. Those plans call for a “sports pavilion” that would include a smaller, 3,000- to 5,000-seat arena and an attached training center, officials said.

It would be constructed west of the Olentangy River and north of Lane Avenue.

“We don’t need a 13,000-seat facility for (those sports), but we’re paying utilities for a 13,000-seat facility,” Patko said.

Jay said a new basketball practice facility and an indoor golf training center rank ahead of the smaller sports arena on the department’s agenda.

Even if those plans become set in stone in the near future, teams will not vacate St. John anytime soon.

“We’re already doing a study right now on what the mini arena may look like,” Jay said. “But it is still years down the road.”

When that time comes, the university will be left with almost 220,000 square feet of land that St. John occupies. Officials don’t know how that property would be used.

“The university hasn’t really made a decision, like ‘X’ building is going there,” Jay said.

The area would not be used for athletic facilities, though, as it is the department’s goal to move all its facilities near the Schottenstein Center.

“One possibility would be for academic facilities. That could range from facilities for College of Agriculture buildings to other academic buildings,” said Jeff Kaplan, senior vice president and special assistant to the president. “It’s also possible, but less likely, that there might be some housing that would be offered there.”

While officials consider their options, they are making sure that money going to the arena won’t be wasted if it’s demolished.

“We have a new scoreboard going in that we may repurpose to this mini arena later and … we’re putting a new distribution system in right now for high-voltage through the university,” Patko said. “That’s something that could be used in another facility some day.”

Then, of course, officials have to grapple with the thought of destroying what some call a part of OSU’s history.

“There are academic buildings on campus that have memories of incredible professors and great classes,” Kaplan said. “We should consider the memories of incredible professors and great academic classes when we are renovating or demolishing classrooms (to) the same degree as you’re looking at great sporting victories.”

Though the basketball teams haven’t called the arena home for 12 years, many students still admire the simplicity of St. John and its wooden seats.

“The Schottenstein Center has so many lights and special effects. At St. John, the game is the focus,” said Chris Call, a third-year in operations management. “There is so much tradition there.”

Besides the one national championship, the arena was also home to five straight Big Ten titles from 1960 to 1964, a conference record.

The accomplishments in St. John Arena are not lost on Lighty.

“That’s a historic place right there, a lot of Buckeye history,” he said.

Despite the building’s history, St. John appears to be on borrowed time. Officials agree that, if they choose to tear it down, that decision will bring mixed emotions.

“Nobody wants to see a historic building like St. John Arena go away,” Jay said.

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