The Salem State Wellness Center has been a gripe with students who for years have said that the gym at the O'Keefe Center sports complex is inadequate.
"It's too small, overcrowded," said Brandon LeBlanc, a soccer player from Worcester who just entered his junior year. "Not enough stuff, not enough space."
"In its current state it definitely needs repair," said Jobita Rodriguez-Rios, a junior from Lynn and the new president of the Student Government Association. "It's a nice thing that we have it, but it seems to be a crowded place. Students are legitimately cramped up on one another."
Their concerns, which echo those of so many of their peers, will soon be a thing of the past.
University officials held a groundbreaking ceremony on Tuesday afternoon to mark the "official" start of construction on a 48,000-square-foot addition to the O'Keefe Center that will add about 7,300-sqaure-feet to the current workout facility. The new addition will open next fall.
"I think it's great," LeBlanc said. "It'll give students more room to work out and more activities for them to do on campus."
The renovation will also add two naturally lit basketball courts, studio space for things like yoga and dancing, a batting cage, multi-purpose space, lounge space, and new locker rooms. There will be no bleachers in the basketball courts, which are to be housed in one large room and used for recreational purposes, but up to 1,000 people will be able to fit inside for events and ceremonies.
Coaches and athletes are already salivating at the possibility of the new workout facility to provide an incentive for Division III recruits to pick Salem State over any of the other 13 state schools.
"I think athletically it puts us into a better situation with our sister universities because most of them all have new fitness centers that have been built in the last five to seven or eight years. So we were behind the eight-ball there, too," Athletic Director Tim Shea said. "When you bring athletes in, when you're recruiting them and you're bringing them around campus, this day in age they're looking for a decent fitness center."
Derek Crocker, a senior hockey player from Wakefield, agreed, and added that he didn't like to go into too much detail about the current workout area with potential recruits.
"Recruits come to see the school, the first thing they ask is how's the gym," he said.
Photo by Mike Sperling, Sperling Interactive, for Salem State.
The addition is the third major construction project on campus in the last five years. The Frederick E. Berry Library - named after longtime state Senator Fred Berry of Peabody, who is retiring this year - is also set to open this fall up the hill from the O'Keefe Center on North Campus, five years after the old library closed and temporarily relocated to Central Campus. The most recent addition to the school previously was Marsh Hall, a sophomore dormitory on Central Campus, which opened in 2010.
The hope is that the project will benefit everyone by adding to the aesthetics and appeal of a rapidly changing campus that is making the transition from commuter college, as it was once known, to full-fledged university.
"I think it's a great addition, and I know we're not stopping," Rodriguez-Rios said, alluding to the possibility of more renovations around campus in the near future. "I think it's really exciting. Some people say 'oh, Salem State's right down the street, it's just a school.' No, Salem State is a university...I think this is going to be a great place where we can have a lot of good professionals coming out of here."
The project falls under the jurisdiction of the Massachusetts State College Building Authority (MSCBA), but the glass-walled, $15 million extension will ultimately be paid for through student fees.
According to Salem State spokeswoman Karen Cady, the school will have 20 years to reimburse the MSCBA. It is unknown by how much student fees will rise as a result, but once that amount is determined this spring, it will stay the same for the duration of the time it takes to pay it off, Cady said.
According to university President Dr. Patricia Maguire Meservey, the university is also finalizing the receipt of a gift from Kim Gassett-Schiller, a 1983 graduate, and her husband Phil Schiller. The new fitness center will be named after Kim's parents, Harold and Marilyn Gassett.
"It serves multiple different purposes," Meservey said of the project. "Certainly providing a much more attractive entrance to the O'Keefe Center, which is important, and the opportunity to have a fitness center where students have the opportunity to exercise, have space to play ball with each other, to relax and enjoy each others company becomes a real focal point these days for students.
"We see it as an opportunity to have our students be healthier, but also to create more community."
Ryan Mooney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mooney_ryan.