September 4, 2017

MWCC's 100-day construction project

Associate Vice-President of Facilities Management Jon Wyman (left) and Dean of Students Jason Zelesky, outside the MWCC Bemis Student Center
Grant Welker
Construction inside the Bemis Student Center in late August.
A rendering of the completed student center.

Mount Wachusett Community College students may have had a busy summer, but so did construction workers on campus.

When students left in May at the end of the spring semester, an area off the campus' main building was still a drab entrance with little activity. In just over three months – beginning the day after graduation ceremonies – it has been transformed into the college's first significant space dedicated to students.

"They couldn't believe that this was for them," Dean of Students Jason Zelesky said of a group of returning students who first toured the new space in the fall semester.

Finally, it is. For years, students were confined to a ping-pong table and little more than a dozen or so seats. Students never had a lounging area to watch cable TV or an outdoor area with WiFi.

As the college grew by more than one-fourth during the recession, to more than 3,200 full-time equivalent students, the space strain became only more apparent. Students began using the library as a hang-out spot, but were making too much noise.

Making up for lost time

The new 4,500-square-foot Bemis Student Center, built for $3.5 million, is making up for those years of students being shortchanged – six times larger than the former student space, which surveys showed had rankled students.

"Before, no one would go in there," Zelesky said of the cramped student center near where the new one was built.

"No windows, just dark," added Jon Wyman, the associate vice president of facilities management.

The new center is only the second new student space opened in recent decades at the Gardner campus. The $41-million, 44,000-square-foot Dr. Daniel M. Asquino Science Center opened a year ago.

Up like a carny ride

Mount Wachusett's Bemis Student Center needed to be rushed in order to fit in between the spring and fall semesters. Workers put in 10-hour days for six days a week. The contractor, Erland Construction of Burlington, and architect, Prellwitz Chilinski Associates of Cambridge, were hired at the same time. Furniture has been stored in a warehouse and other material has been stored near the building's loading dock awaiting the right time to be installed.

"They couldn't believe we could pull it off," Zelesky said of students' expectations before construction began.

The work was on track to be ready by the first day of fall classes Sept. 5, giving just enough extra time before a planned welcome-back barbecue and ribbon-cutting event Sept. 13.

The space includes new offices for the campus police, which before were confined to a smaller, less-accessible location. More trees and landscaping will be planted, and outdoor seating will be added for the first time.

The center was named after Bemis Associates in Shirley, which gave a $500,000 donation. Steve Howard, the CEO of Bemis subsidiary and thermoplastics compounder PolyVisions Inc., is a Mount Wachusett trustee.

The local building boom

Framingham State College, Clark University and Quinsigamond Community College all opened new buildings last year, and five other area colleges have opened new buildings in the past five years. Next year, the College of the Holy Cross expects to open its $95-million Luth Athletic Complex, and Worcester Polytechnic Institute its $49-million Foisie Innovation Studio & Messenger Residence Hall. Holy Cross in August unveiled plans for a new $92-million arts and performance building.

Nationally, college construction has slowed in recent years, according to a report last year by the infrastructure consultant Sightlines.

Around 2006, colleges were adding more square-footage than at any point since the 1970s, but by 2015, construction had slowed to the lowest point since the '50s, Sightlines found in a survey of 377 colleges.

At the same time, college enrollment has fallen nationwide in each semester since the fall of 2011, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Center. In Massachusetts, enrollment has fallen slightly in five of the past six semesters through the spring of 2017.


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