GREENVILLE — Jon Gilbert had the look of an expectant father last week as he showed off the newest member of his East Carolina “family.”
Only instead of revealing a bouncing baby boy or girl, the object of the athletic director’s pride was a brick-and-mortar structure rising five stories above Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium at a cost of around $60 million.
The new addition already has a name — TowneBank Tower. And while it’s still a construction site with no paint on the drywall, wires dangling down from the ceilings, plumbing in the rough-in stage and workers scurrying around on every level, enough has been done to get feel for what the finished product will look like.
It’s already a major aesthetic improvement from the press box/suite facility it is replacing, a 40-plus-year-old eyesore not-so-affectionately referred to as the Doublewide in the Sky.
“The first thing is it passes the look test,” said Gilbert, wearing a hard hat and a constant smile as he led members of the media on a tour of the new building that has dramatically changed the look and image of the Pirates’ football home. “It should enhance our gameday atmosphere and enhance our recruiting as well.”
In addition to workspace for both the print and electronic media on its top floor, the new tower will also feature four levels of premium seating — including 22 Loge Boxes, 19 Standard Suites, five Founders Suites and 550 Scholarship Club level seats.
The initial plan was for only 18 Standard Suites, but that changed after Gilbert’s first visit to the site upon his hiring in January.
“The visiting AD box was way too nice in my opinion, so I instructed (senior associate athletics director for internal operations J.J. McLamb) and (Pirate Club executive director Phillip Wood) that we would be selling that as part of a Standard Suite,” he said. “So instead of having 18, we’ll have 19 now. We found snug accommodations for the visiting AD to accommodate them much like we are on the road.”
According to Wood, virtually all the suites are sold out. Fans can still get in on the Scholarship Club level, which in addition to outdoor seating includes access to a spacious bar and indoor hospitality area Gilbert said will have “a sports bar-type atmosphere.”
Besides its primary game day function, the Scholarship Club is also designed to be used as a banquet hall that can be booked for weddings, bar mitzvahs and other social events during the offseason.
As opposed to the suites, which range in cost from $100,000 a year to $20,000 annually with a 10-year commitment, the club level is priced so that smaller donors to afford to enjoy it.
“Originally the amount of the gift required to sit in the Scholarship Club was $5,300,” Wood said. “We made the decision as a department to reduce that down to $2,000. The seats are still $2,500 per seat. The activity that it’s created is what we’d hoped for.”
The TowneBank Tower is part of an extensive facilities upgrade that includes a total renovation of the Pirates’ weight room, a new roof on the Murphy Center, a second turf practice field and a resodding of Dowdy-Ficklen’s playing surface.
Although facilities don’t win games, regardless of how nice they are or how many bells and whistles they might have, they do help attract the kind of talented players it takes to attain those victories.
With the new facility’s debut set for Sept. 7 against Gardner-Webb, which also happens to be new coach Mike Houston’s home debut, ECU now has a much more competitive product to sell to its prospective recruits — especially in comparison to its rivals in the American Athletic Conference.
Gilbert said that construction on the new facility should be completed by July with finishing work such as furniture and graphics being done in time for an official ribbon-cutting ceremony sometime in mid-August.
The AD is also planning an open house during ECU’s annual Meet the Pirates Day festivities so that all fans — including those that can’t afford to watch the games from the lap of luxury — can get a look at what TowneBank Tower looks like from the inside.
“I think it’s a transformational structure for our athletic department, for our football program and for our community,” Gilbert said “It is state-of-the-art. It is a first-class facility. And I really look at it as a community asset because we will have a lot more things in this building other than football events.”