Surveying the sun-drenched, soaring student center inside New River Community and Technical College’s newly renovated Arts and Science Building, it’s difficult to imagine that as recently as a year ago a rabbit warren of 20 windowless offices occupied this space.
It’s actually easier to envision an even earlier use of the high-ceilinged area, at a time when it resonated with the sounds of squeaking gym shoes and the slap-slap of a basketball being dribbled across the gleaming floor.
The transition from the room’s original purpose — the Greenbrier College for Women’s basketball court — through an interim
period when temporary walls criss-crossed the hardwood expanse, creating offices for Division of Highways’ staffers, and on to its future use as a gathering spot for students is now nearly complete.
“This has turned out much better than I had anticipated,” remarked Greenbrier Valley campus dean Roger Griffith as he led a small group on a recent tour of the renovated structure.
“The contractors have done a tremendous job,” Griffith said.
Work on the 23,000-square-foot building, which is located in Academy Park between Carnegie Hall and the Greenbrier County Library, began in February of last year, nearly six years after bonds to pay for the renovation were approved.
New River public relations director Barbara Elliott explained the delay, saying, “The economy ‘tanked’ right after the bonds were approved. That’s why the bonds didn’t sell at that point. And by the time the market recovered, construction prices had gone up so much, the college had to re-bid the project.”
Further complicating the renovation project was a proposal from the Greenbrier County Commission to pay for restoration of a long-disused swimming pool and surrounding support area in one end of the building and then to manage the resulting “aquatic center” as a public facility.
The county’s use of $1.3 million in bed tax funds to pay for the aquatic center’s rehab could not withstand a legal challenge, however, leading to a snarl of litigation that continues to hamper the college’s plans to occupy the balance of the building, according to New River officials.
Having already spent just over $3 million on renovations to the side of the building designated for the student center, offices, classrooms, laboratories and conference space, as well as extensive exterior work, New River doesn’t have the additional resources needed to bring the pool side of the structure up to the state fire marshal’s standards, Griffith said.
“The fire marshal won’t grant even a temporary occupancy certificate for this building without the other side having fire alarms and sprinklers to ensure the safety of the building,” he said.
In separate lawsuits, the county is demanding the college’s foundation return all of the money that commissioners illegally allocated for the pool project, and the foundation is asking a judge to determine whether the college or the county now “owns” the $1 million that has not yet been refunded.
“We’re hoping that everything is resolved so this building can be used,” Griffith said.
If the legal issues are settled in time, Griffith said he hopes to be able to stage convocation ceremonies in the student center in the fall.
Adjoining the common gathering space is a commercial kitchen where a contractor who will be selected through a competitive bidding process will prepare “reasonably priced, good food” to sell to students and college staff, Griffith said.
He said parking around campus is really at a premium, and once a student finds a spot, he or she is loath to give it up in order to go buy lunch or a snack, making a small-scale food service operation inside the student center optimal.
A classroom/conference room and photography studio, complete with darkroom, overlook the student center, borrowing natural light from the double tier of windows that offer a treetop view, with doors leading onto a gracefully curved veranda.
“We tried to retain as much of the character of the building as possible,” Griffith said, pointing to the meticulously refinished flooring, along with rounded pillars that were added inside the student center to mirror the architecture of other buildings in Academy Park.
Griffith said those interior pillars are one of his favorite features, both because they visually integrate the mid-century Arts and Science Building with its more venerable neighbors on the site and because the spaces between the columns create a shallow niche for the display of 3-D artwork.
Great expanses of wall space were incorporated into the building’s interior redesign with an eye toward displaying student artwork throughout the facility, which is envisioned as the primary home of the college’s fine arts department.
In addition to the student center, kitchen, classroom/conference room and photography studio, the building contains a printmaking lab, two computer labs, an exercise physiology studio with rubberized flooring, four general use classrooms and eight offices, along with storage spaces and rest rooms.
“We’ve used every inch we possibly could,” Griffith said.
With around 800 students expected on campus this fall, the dean said a decision has not yet been made whether to move any entire program other than fine arts over to the Arts and Science Building.
“We’ll be able to take the art program to the next level with these facilities,” Griffith predicted. “The quality of the work our students do is tremendous, but we’ve never had the facilities.
“Putting programs in appropriate spaces — that’s what this building is all about.”
Although it’s difficult to set a firm date for the renovated building’s official public unveiling, Griffith obviously hopes this fall will find the hallways filled with students rather than construction workers.
When pressed about alternative plans for the wild card in the deck — the unrestored swimming pool — Griffith said, “We’re brainstorming now. The space presents multitudes of opportunities, but it all depends on money being available and the time frame for the project.”
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