MISSOULA — As the weather has turned in Montana — as expected this time of the year — thoughts have shifted to the progress of the Grizzly Indoor Practice Facility on the University of Montana campus.
The project was estimated to be completed by the fall on an aggressive timeline, but it remains unfinished.
UM broke ground on the practice facility back in April as construction began, but some challenges along the way have made the process take a little longer than initially hoped.
"It was a combination of just the permitting delays pushed us back a little bit that we had during the summer," UM athletic director Kent Haslam told MTN Sports in an update on the facility. "And then an untimely, wet fall, the timing of when it happened, just got the base to a point where we don't want to risk putting turf in and then in a couple of years having it sinking or bubbling or anything like that. So under the advice of FieldTurf, they said, look, let's wait until this is dry, let's get this thing done right, not just do it quickly."
Because the winter months are here, the base of the facility can't be compacted the way they need it to be to install the turf field.
Haslam said the foundation is complete, and over the next few weeks the support buildings for the facility will also be finished, and the hope is turf installation will begin again on June 1 and should only take about four weeks to finish, meaning the facility should be operational in early to mid-July should the timeline play out as hoped.
"We're anxious to get it up," Haslam said. "It's unfortunate that it's not done for this winter. We were really excited to get it done and online and serving our student-athletes in football and our other sports and campus rec and all those people that wanted to use it during those winter months.
"We had a pretty aggressive timeline anyway. And a couple of hiccups along the way. And weather in Montana, just pushed that a little bit later."
As the Griz football team continues to roll in the FCS playoffs, and with inclimate weather hitting more frequently, having the facility ready by now would've been a prime addition as UM continues to practice each week and battle the elements outside.
But over this past summer, permitting issues from the city of Missoula arose, as initially UM set their max occupancy of the facility to 300 people, but the city instead set it at 2,100, or one person per 50 square feet, according to Haslam.
"Once that maximum capacity was set higher than we were planning for, it required us to beef up the foundation a little bit more and increase the pressure inside of the dome," Haslam explained. "So in case there was a failure or something like that, the dome would deflate slower so that you could evacuate everybody that was in there.
"For safety reasons, those were things that the city wanted us to do so that pause, we had to stop building on it while those permits were reviewed. And then when those permits came back, and there are alterations that were needed. That changed the design slightly. So you go back to engineering and do all that."
The pause happened in May and lasted over a month, and while they made their alterations, the weather also decided to make an unforeseen impact.
"Then in the time when we were looking really to compact the base and make sure that it was completely finished and ready and solid, we just got rain at untimely times," Haslam said. "And there were puddles and seepage of water down. And that slowed that turf installation process down.
"It was really the footings and the foundation, the weight that's needed to hold it in place. If you're going to increase the pressure inside, naturally the engineers are going to tell you you need a beefier foundation. And so it was really simply adding more footings and that's going to be run through a mathematical process to make sure that it's going to really hold that much pressure. And so that was really the design that changed. So the bulk of the work during the summer was, if you stopped by, just the massive pouring of concrete that sits below that dirt. Anyone that drove by saw the huge mound of dirt for all the excavation that that dirt is now pushed back to cover up those really, really large footings that sit now below the surface."
Haslam said some added costs were needed in those additions, but nothing drastic and that they hadn't already fundraised for on the $10.2 million privately funded endeavor.
Their initial timeline was rapid, but the adjustments have been understood by those affected.
"As athletic director, you've always got aggressive timelines, and then engineers and people who are really going to go out and build it, bring you back down to earth. We always have aggressive fundraising goals as well," he said. "And so you've got to be kind of brought back into check. We want to have things done quick. But, our donors are understanding, and understanding how this process works. We kept them in the loop as to how things were pausing, why they were pausing. And people have been really supportive.
"It's unfortunate that we couldn't get this done quicker. But really, when you think about a groundbreaking in late April, and then if you have any hiccups at all, it's going to push you back just because of the building season in in Missoula, Montana."
Montana wants to have the facility completed in time for summer camps and other events. Once the tuft is installed, the inflatable dome that will cover it, can go up at anytime.
The loss of the field it is being constructed on has forced displacement and adjusting to those who have used it in the past, but the timeline is now set for mid-summer for this latest project, one that will have a profound impact on UM athletics, campus rec sports, and the community at large.
"It's going to be an absolute, just bonus for us and a chance to have an indoor space where our student-athletes and our community and our campus and our students can have an indoor facility during the cold, bitter, winter months, and it will allow our coaches to set timelines and schedules for spring practices in a much more succinct way, and in a way that it doesn't have to be altered because you might get a snowstorm in March that just disrupts everything you do," Haslam said. "So spring football, spring sports, soccer, all those that are going to utilize it will certainly be back to how they've done it for years and years here, but it'll be great to have this kind of space that's really nowhere else in western Montana