Drury’s multimillion dollar arena could be a sign of the times

Geoff Pickle, Web Editor

October’s going to be a busy month for Drury University.

Today marks the opening day of the university’s $12 million O’Reilly Family Event Center, which will have a month of events culminating with an Aretha Franklin concert on Oct. 30.

Media members were invited to tour the facility Sept. 30, amid a flurry of final construction touches and beautification efforts.

It became very clear while touring the facility that tremendous care had been taken in its construction. The 3,100-seat arena and the adjoining locker rooms – with wood paneling and couches, administrative offices and the media/event catering room all dazzled. And I think I must have counted at least 20 flat-screen televisions – in the locker rooms, the suites and the offices.

Our tour guide, Myra Miller, director of the O’Reilly center, pointed out quickly and often how the arena was a much-improved facility for athletics than the previously used Weiser Gym – which allowed 2,200 people to watch events, according to the Drury Web site.

“Weiser’s been a wonderful place to watch games, but it’s time to move on,” said Edsel Matthews, vice president for athletics, following the tour.

And the school has definitely moved on.

The kick-off for the arena – with a concert from M-Dock Band, fireworks and a barbecue – will be held tonight, and events will continue throughout October, including concerts with blues band Axel and the Equators and pop rock band Lifehouse.

But, alas, I can’t help but feel that although Drury put a ton of work into the building, officials somehow missed the mark.

Let me start with the the general aesthetics of the center. Anyone who has walked the Drury campus before might have noticed its Ivy League feel – old-style buildings, plenty of trees and spanning fresh, green lawns.

Now, take a walk around the new arena. What you’ll find is a concrete jungle, with more contemporary-style architecture and construction. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but something about it just didn’t fit. On a purely visual scale, the area looks like it belongs not to Drury but to some other university.

In speaking with Miller this morning, I learned that the land on the south side of the building – facing Chestnut Expressway – will be made into a grass field, and vegetation will be added on the sides of the building. This will likely ease the concrete feel of the building’s skirt, but the contemporary architecture will remain.

I also have to give credit to school officials for the building’s meeting of and acceptance as a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-Gold certificant, the standard in sustainable building construction. This is certainly commendable.

As far as the concert selections, I won’t go into my own personal favorite artists, but this is a liberal arts school we’re talking about.

Lifehouse? Aretha Franklin?

Maybe I’m speaking out of my league here, but something about this doesn’t fit among the other pieces of the puzzle.

Aretha Franklin, we were told right off the bat before the tour by Drury President Todd Parnell, would likely excite the older crowd but not younger music fans.

Certainly, there are Aretha fans in younger circles, but I have to agree with him here.

And Lifehouse? Miller told me after the tour that Lifehouse had been booked primarily for the students. I can’t condescend to speak on the merit of the band’s musical integrity (as I’m not a fan), but it seems to me that mainstream rock arguably does not fit with a private, liberal arts institution.

An inherent problem here could be the seat limitations, which wouldn’t allow for some larger concerts, even with floor space added in with the 3,100 seats. However, a private school seems like it would be a great fit for independent bands, a style of music becoming increasingly popular in the U.S. Local bands like Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin and Never Shout Never have gained national attention but still play local shows. These kinds of acts likely would be popular with the college crowd (possibly aiding retention rates).

Upon leaving the tour, I was left with a feeling that the new arena wasn’t built for students (besides those involved in athletics) but for those outside Drury’s educational realm (with money).

Drury’s enrollment numbers this semester speak volumes. The school’s semester census shows a record 5,625 students. Perhaps Drury is expanding beyond its subtle reputation into deeper and faster waters. Perhaps not. But regardless, the time’s they are a-changin’, and Drury seems to be on board.

Check out sbj.net for a photo gallery of the arena.

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