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New lakefront athletic facility could be completed by fall 2014

by Chris Johnson (@chrisdjohnsonn)

Less than two years ago, Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips endorsed a comprehensive plan for upgrading athletic and recreational facilities. Internal discussions of the proposal were made public in October 2010 and Phillips said that a detailed presentation would be unveiled in spring 2011 to campus administrators and local officials. It never happened. The plan is still being nit-picked and hashed out among Phillips, the Board of Trustees and other high-ranking university executives at the most basic of levels, with concerns arising over property expansion, capital responsibility and other potential logistical pitfalls.

(The Daily Northwestern spoke this spring with sources close to the situation, who confirmed the lack of progress in advancing the plan.)

The perceived glacial pace of the plan’s progression received an unexpected jolt over the weekend, as Chris Emma of PurpleWildcats.com reported that a lakefront athletic facility worth upwards of $300 million has been officially proposed to board of trustee members for approval. According to Emma, the facility would include a state-of-the-art turf field as well as offices for NU football and other varsity sports. Construction would take place in the existing location of the Lakeside Field parking lot, alongside Lake Michigan. The facility’s target date for completion is fall 2014, pending approval by the board of trustees.

From Emma's story:

Multiple sources tell PurpleWildcats.com that a $300 million lakefront, multi-sport athletic and recreational facility has been proposed and is pending the approval of the Northwestern board of trustees.

"We have to continue to invest in our football program, and that has a chance for a residual positive effect on the other 18 sports," Northwestern director of athletics Jim Phillips said at the May Big Ten meetings.

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It would be premature to celebrate this latest development in the ongoing NU facilities upgrade saga without first considering just how long a plan has reportedly been in the works and how little has been completed thus far. Phillips hasn’t given the official ok yet, meaning the proposed new lakefront facility, which, remember, is still pending approval, is hardly a guarantee. Until there is visual evidence of workers and machines breaking ground on the Lakeside Field Parking lot, anything short of reserved optimism is a misguided approach.

Of course, if the plan gets approved, NU athletics would undoubtedly benefit in several ways. The obvious one is on the recruiting trail, where the Wildcats’ outdated facilities are eclipsed by perhaps every other Big Ten school. (ESPN’s Big Ten blog recently ranked the Big Ten’s football facilities, with NU coming in at last place.) There’s also an aesthetic aspect to this whole facilities renovation plan, and a brand new lakefront athletic and recreational facility certainly would add to the charm of NU’s waterfront property. Lakeside field has developed a reputation as one of the more quaint, picturesque locales on campus, and the new proposed facility could provide a similar dose of atmospheric beauty.

In a vacuum, it’s hard to find fault in the proposed new facility. There’s plenty to like about the idea: the close proximity to residential and academic buildings, a new, sustainable practice field, upgraded football offices, breathtaking views of Lake Michigan, the list goes on. The facility would generate a broader student-centric fan base, encourage greater attendance and stimulate Wildcat pride. What better way to inspire a mostly passive—compared to most other Big Ten schools—fan base and upgrade the perception of the NU athletic program as a whole than with a new, state-of-the-art athletic complex in one of the most beautiful areas on campus.

The larger takeaway here, however, is the broader implication of the cohesion and agreement among NU officials prefiguring the new facility’s approval. If the rumors hold true, and plans for a new facility are indeed being discussed with resolute intent, there’s reason to believe Phillips’ master facilities upgrade plan, an exhaustive capital and infrastructural platform featuring a new, campus-site football stadium and basketball arena, is a distinct possibility.

A practice facility represents only a small piece of Phillips’ proposed master project. Yet the unified stance of Phillips and top NU administrators suggests a more cooperative temperament in discussions over facilities renovation, a sensible approach that could signal future progress in reaching a consensus on other components of the plan.