(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Olympic cauldron is returned to the University of Utah on Friday, Jan. 29, 2021. Optimism remains for an on-time finish to expanding Rice-Eccles Stadium by the start of football in September.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it plenty of difficult moments to the University of Utah athletic department, but one silver lining is construction of the Ken Garff Performance Zone.
The ongoing $80 million project in the south end zone of Rice-Eccles Stadium, $17 million of which came from the Garff family, was expedited late in the summer after the Pac-12
temporarily postponed its football season to at least the winter. Even before things were expedited, Utes athletic director Mark Harlan publicly stated a number of times that demolition and construction were on time, if not slightly ahead of schedule.
Utah got three home games played in 2020 despite the constant hum of activity in the south end zone. Now, seven months before the Utes are scheduled to open the 2021 season on Sept. 2 against Weber State, optimism remains for an on-time finish to the project.
“Everything is on schedule to be completed, we hope, by July,” Harlan told The Salt Lake Tribune. “It really is exciting to see it take shape. It’s something we’ve wanted for a long time. Our incredible donors, the Garff family leading the way, doing amazing stuff for us as it relates to that. I think all of us are really excited to open it up.”
The athletic department hit two significant milestones last week with the south end zone project. Last week, the final steel beam, signed by donors and administrators, in addition to football coach Kyle Whittingham, was raised into place.
Two days later, the 2002 Olympic Cauldron was returned to Rice-Eccles, while it’s refurbishment to extend its lifespan will continue. The cauldron was removed for refurbishment in February 2020.
Once completed, Rice-Eccles will go from a capacity of 45,807 to 51,444, giving Utah the seventh-largest football stadium in the Pac-12. Harlan indicated in August that seats in the new structure were almost sold out.
Utah has sold out 64 consecutive home games dating back to the 2010 opener vs. the University of Pittsburgh. Before the Pac-12 decision to not allow fans this fall
, Utah boasted a 94% season-ticket renewal rate
, backstopped by a robust waiting list of about 3,000.
While work on Rice-Eccles is on time, a renovation of the Dumke Gymnastics Center is nearing its targeted fundraising goal.
When the athletic department announced a fundraising campaign for the Red Rocks’ facility in March 2018, which predates Harlan’s tenure by three months, the goal was $3 million with construction beginning in 2020.
The goal of starting construction in 2020 was not met, but fundraising efforts are nearing $3 million. In a wide-ranging interview with The Tribune last month, Harlan estimated that 80-90% of the necessary funding was complete, while calling the Dumke renovation “a key priority of our development staff.”
(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) University of Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham leans in to sign the final steel beam being raised into place at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021.
“We still need to raise more funds, we still need to have conversations with people in the community to help us get there,” Harlan said. “It’s a premier program at the University of Utah, it’s a facility that needs to be updated, and we have a plan for it. We have some incredible donors that have stepped up, but we do need to raise some more capital before we do break ground.”
When Dumke opened in 1999, it was considered state-of-the-art, but is now in need of upgrades. Renovation plans call for an expanded team locker room, lounge and balcony, among other amenities.
On Jan. 20, Utah opened the doors on its eighth athletics construction or renovation project since it joined the Pac-12, the $2.9 million David S. Layton Golf Academy.
The athletic department announced the project on June 18
, complete with a $1 million gift from David Layton, President and CEO of Sandy-based Layton Construction. The 7,000 square-foot building is situated on Guardsman Way, across the street from the Eccles Football Center.
Layton’s $1 million gift went before Utah’s Board of Trustees at its June 9 meeting.