Fresno State has shelved plans for a $60 million renovation of Bulldog Stadium, choosing instead to upgrade the venue in incremental stages.
Instead, Fresno State will focus on finding ways to improve the Robert E. Duncan Athletic Building and the student-athlete village, according to a source familiar with the project. The Duncan building just outside Bulldog Stadium is the athletics department’s home, but Fresno State also runs programs out of the North Gym and the Save Mart Center.
“We are currently evaluating what we’re doing with the stadium moving forward,” acknowledged Steve Robertello, interim athletics director. He inherited the top spot in the program when Jim Bartko resigned in November, citing personal reasons.
The plans Robertello speaks about are in an early stage and there is no timetable for enhancements to a stadium that was opened in 1980, is showing its age with seats that have faded to an odd hue and cracking in the walkways and seating areas, and has few fan amenities. But the Bulldogs’ fan base, which has been declining the past several years, will have to continue to wait for an upgrade.
Fresno State, despite a 9-3 regular-season record and winning the West Division of the Mountain West Conference in the first season under coach Jeff Tedford, drew more than 30,000 for only two of six home dates. It had 39,447 for its opener against Incarnate Word featuring the No. 4 jersey retirement honoring quarterback Derek Carr and it had 31,526 for its final home game against Boise State.
It averaged 30,362, fourth in the Mountain West Conference. In 2013 average attendance was 36,917 and in 2008 it was 37,864.
Bulldog Stadium holds 41,031.
The stadium renovation project, which was led by former athletics director Jim Bartko, was to enhance fan experience by adding tunnels into the seating bowl and a cross aisle to improve access, new restroom and concessions facilities and a tower on the west side of the venue that was to include a stadium club, suites and a new press box.
“The fan experience and coming to games has been such a family history here in this community for so long, but nowadays with modern technology, we need to make sure that we can bring 40,000 people in here and they can all have a great time and know that it’s worth the value that they’re spending,” Bartko said in June 2015.
“They’re spending money on donations and parking and concessions and gear. They’re visiting campus and going back to the ag school and business school, and we have to make sure this is the place they can enjoy a game. Then we can also recruit the top players and keep great coaches. It all ties into that revenue stream that we need to make sure we continue to have to fund all of our programs.”
Renovation was a priority
Still, the stadium renovation and creation of a Bulldog District around it were seen as essential for Fresno State to remain competitive in the Mountain West Conference and gain traction on a national level, not just in football but in all of its sports.
“For us to move forward in this conference, look around, the whole conference is doing it,” Bartko said last year. “Colorado State is doing it, Utah State is doing it, Nevada. UNLV is looking at it. Wyoming has done it. Boise did it. Air Force is doing it. We have to look at it. It’s going to happen, whether it’s a year from now, five years, because Bulldog Stadium can’t continue the way it is now with the conditions of some areas and the fan experience.
“In 20 years, it won’t be functional from concessions and restrooms, just the concrete in the walkways and the rails, seating. We need to do it fiscally responsible and make it right revenue-wise, so we can compete for championships.”
Renovating Bulldog Stadium was supposed to be done in four phases with Fresno State’s 2019 home opener against Minnesota envisioned as the target date for a grand re-opening.
But it had been set back by a number of issues including unexplained cracking in the concrete on the east side of the stadium, University and athletics department officials have acknowledged the timeline would be a challenge.
Some work must be done
The university has conducted several exploratory tests on the soil and berm to determine the cause of the damage and it is expected at the first part of the year to conduct another, ripping out a stairway in a center section of the stadium so that engineers can better evaluate the structure and cause of the damage.
“We don’t know obviously what we may uncover once we demo out those middle stairs, but we’ll be able to visually see if we’ve got moisture or what is going on back there as well as being able to have our structural engineers do any additional assessment,” said Debbie Astone, the university’s vice president for administration, in a December interview.
“Once we know what we’re dealing with then we’ll be able to develop a plan. Is it a plan where we need to replace the berm in sections? Is it a plan where we have to demo all this and get it rebuilt before the start of the season? We just don’t know. Is it just in a certain area we’re having this issue?”
If the berm and seating areas on the east side of the stadium require a complete teardown, university officials have said it could cost up to $20 million. Funding for that project, if necessary, could come in part from the California State University system as deferred maintenance. But Fresno State might also have to raise a significant portion of the money.
In addition, six days before the Bulldogs opened Mountain West Conference play against Nevada, an irrigation line broke under Section 38, flooding the south end zone with mud and debris and damaging the Field Turf playing surface.
Fresno State had to close that section for its final five home games. Repairs are expected to be completed during this year’s east-side work.
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada