Smith Center awaits a facelift

Junior Mike Hall likes playing at the Smith Center. And so does the rest of the GW men’s basketball team, which went 11-1 at home last season.

“It’s a great home court,” Hall said. “I like the smallish feel of it.”

When the gym is packed with 5,000 screaming fans, the Colonials enjoy quite a home court advantage. But it’s sort of like the old Boston Garden: small, crowded and without modern amenities.

Since opening in 1975, the Smith Center has been home to the basketball, volleyball, gymnastics, swimming and diving and water polo teams, not to mention the athletes that practice there. Nearly three decades later, athletes, coaches and administrators say the place could use a facelift.”

I would love to have (the Smith Center) look more like an athletic facility,” Director of Athletics Jack Kvancz said. “A donor could pick and choose what he or she wants to do. We are constantly looking, trying to get somebody to buy it.

“The hitch in the plan, Kvancz said, is that no donor is currently willing to shell out enough money to complete the renovation. The facelift, he said, could cost in the $10 million range and include expanded seating, changes to the outside of the building and a revamped lower level.

If he had a choice, Kvancz said he would first improve the downstairs area of the Smith Center, which includes the pool, locker, weight and training rooms.

In the meantime, despite lacking a donor for major renovations, there are a few improvements students will see this year. The first is a new, multi-screen video scoreboard over the basketball court, which would be more attractive to fans as well as advertisers, officials said.

In addition to a new scoreboard, the advertising placards behind the baskets will be replaced with digital boards that will display a variety of information, including advertisements and scores. Both renovations should be completed by late September, according to Smith Center Operations Manager Jason Wilson.

Wilson said anything the athletic department can do will help distinguish the arena from other area venues.

“Marketing and advertising is so important because it gets GW to stand out,” he said. “You’re competing with Maryland, Georgetown, George Mason and (American University) and the Kennedy Center and the Lincoln Theater.”

But even with upgrades in the basketball arena, the lower level remains a concern to some athletes.

Senior soccer player Lise Backman said there is a major space crunch. Teams share locker rooms, which teams at many Division I schools do not have to do. Although the equipment is up-to-date, there just isn’t enough of it.

“There’s only two treadmills. How can all the athletes use just two treadmills?” she asked. “There isn’t much equipment compared to other schools who have as many athletic programs as (GW).”

Women’s basketball head coach Joe McKeown said improving the weight and training rooms could help recruiting, adding that he has been vying for Smith Center renovations for 15 years.

On the other hand, McKeown said practicing and playing at the Smith Center has become much more enjoyable than it used to be. With the opening of the Health and Wellness Center in 2001, less of the general student population uses the 600 G Street spot.

“My first year, I’ll never forget it,” McKeown said, recalling how students used to be able to exercise in the facility during varsity games. “There was a pick-up game going on upstairs. When the referees would blow a whistle, we weren’t sure where it came from.”

While student-athletes chose to attend GW in spite of the facility, Backman said they would not mind seeing renovations.

Kvancz said part of the problem is that donors usually like their names attached to changes that are more visible.

“It’s not sexy to fix downstairs and I understand that,” he said. “But that’s the thing we need to fix. We need more locker room space. We desperately need more training room space.”

Because the Smith Center is home to several summer camps, concerts and other events during the year, Kvancz said there is little time for renovations. But McKeown said any improvements will be welcomed by students and teams alike.

“(The arena) needs to become a little more fan-friendly,” he said. “It’s a great place to play, but it just needs a little fresh paint.”

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