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'A game changer for East Carolina University': New student center opens

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Hundreds gather outside of the new student center at East Carolina University before the ribbon cutting ceremony, Monday afternoon. The 220,000 square foot facility is replacing the use of the existing Mendenhall Student Center.

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By Kim Grizzard
The Daily Reflector

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

ECU invited people into its new “living room” on Monday, and hundreds took the university up on the offer.

Students, faculty, graduates and community members gathered outside the new Main Campus Student Center for its grand opening. While the center's Dowdy Student Store opened on Friday, Monday's celebration was for many people a first look at the 220,000-square-foot facility.

“You're going to be blown away,” Chancellor Cecil Staton told people waiting to step inside the center at East 10th and Charles streets. “You are in for a huge surprise. I think you'll be amazed. This center is among the finest in the nation, if not the best.”

The center will include a food court with half a dozen dining options, along with a game room, student lounges, meeting spaces and study rooms, and an adjacent 724-space parking garage.

Amenities include a 24-by-42-foot outdoor digital display screen, a 250-seat black box theater and a 14,000-square-foot ballroom with a seating capacity of nearly 2,000 people.

In addition to the student store, the center will house the Jesse Peel LGBTQ Resource Center and the Ledonia Wright Cultural Center, as well as the Student Government Association and Student Activities Board offices.

“This student center is a game changer for East Carolina University,” said Virginia Hardy, vice chancellor for student affairs. “It will transform the culture of our campus.”

Officials said the new center, which was more than a decade in the making, will be the first stop on campus tours for students considering ECU. The three-story building, which contains enough glass to cover a football field, replaces Mendenhall, which was the university's student center for nearly 45 years.

“Sometimes we speak of athletics as being the front porch of a university,” Staton said. “Well, I think that's probably true, but if so, the student union is the living room, the dining room, the den and so many other rooms to boot. It is so much more.

“I predict that it will be a place where the deal is closed and future Pirates become committed to this wonderful university,” he said.

University of North Carolina Board of Governors Chairman Harry Smith, who also spoke at the ribbon-cutting ceremony, said the center is needed for the university to remain competitive in attracting students.

Smith, an ECU graduate, said the competition for funding in the UNC system also is competitive. A member of the Board of Governors since 2014, Smith said that in the last five years, ECU has received $382 million in appropriations, compared with $261 million for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“I think sometimes it's good to understand the color of investment and the fight that's gone on for this university for appropriations,” he said.

The center is part of the $170 million ECU Student Centers Project, which includes the Health Sciences Campus Student Center that opened in 2017.

Steve Ballard, chancellor when ECU broke ground on the new facility in November 2015, returned to campus for the ceremony.

“This project was hard to get realized, so this is a huge day for East Carolina because it reflects the growth of the institution and the importance of the institution to the state,” he said.

Ballard said he was able to get his first look inside the facility about a month ago.

“Even though it was a long fight getting here, I think it will be huge for our students and our campus and our community,” he said.

ECU senior Katie Daeke has been waiting since her freshman year to see the center open.

“There's a reason we're known as Eternal Construction University,” she said, laughing. “I was mostly hoping it would be open before I graduated so I could actually enjoy it.”

Daeke was disappointed at the delay in the opening of the facility's dining options, which include Panda Express, Starbucks, 1907 Grill, The Confectionery Ice Cream and Sweet Shop, Raising Cane's Chicken Fingers and Au Bon Pain Cafe Bakery. (The university is hopeful that restaurants will be open later this month.)

Still, Daeke was pleased with what she saw, from the larger selection of art supplies in the student store to the additional spaces for students to simply hang out.

“It's amazing,” she said. “I'm just happy it's open.”

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