Carol Biliczky

KENT: The Kent State University community got its first look Wednesday at about $186 million in campus improvements.

KSU officials displayed posters and staged a slide show in the Student Center ballroom to outline the first significant updates to the main campus in more than 40 years.

“This is one of those great days at Kent State that we’re going to celebrate for years to come,” President Lester Lefton told students, faculty, staff and the public. “We are today’s and tomorrow’s new college town.”

Lefton says the improvements are essential to attracting and retaining students in the competitive higher-education marketplace. They want the best, and Kent State wants to offer the best, he said.

The wide-ranging improvements are only part of the story Lefton and others wanted to tell at the four-hour open house decorated with orange construction barrels.

City officials and private developers also were on hand to celebrate their role in a bigger union: more than $700 million in improvements in the city of Kent and at KSU’s seven regional campuses throughout Northeastern Ohio since 2008.

These include a new hotel and conference center being developed by the KSU Foundation, new corporate headquarters for Ametek and Davey Tree and new restaurants and shops, all in downtown Kent.

Partners have bought up languishing blocks downtown. The city has pulled down the fence that separated campus from downtown since the 1970s, with the goal of blending city and student life.

The university is extending its esplanade — a brick and concrete walkway — from campus to the heart of the new business district.

City Manager Dave Ruller said it took “a great deal of political will” to go against the tide of the deteriorating economy and seek partners to infuse new life in downtown.

Funding has come from local, state and federal governments and developers, including the Pizzuti Companies, Fairmount Properties and Kent resident Ron Burbick.

As for Kent State, the big winner — at least in terms of the impact on a sole academic program — is the College of Architecture and Environmental Design.

Three architecture programs housed in Taylor Hall and elsewhere will get a $40 million headquarters south of the new esplanade extension.

Dean Doug Steidl said the fire alarm, electrical and other systems will be exposed in some parts of the new facility as instruction tools. With 120,000 square feet, 50 percent more than it has now, the program for the first time will have room for research.

About 825 students are enrolled in the college’s architecture, urban design, interior design and architectural studies programs, Steidl said.

KSU also will invest $80 million in improvements to the science buildings (Cunningham, Smith and Williams halls); construct a $15 million building for the College of Applied Engineering, Sustainability and Technology; and make $25 million in improvements to the art building.

Construction will affect virtually every building on the Kent campus, said Tom Euclide, KSU’s associate vice president for facilities planning and operations.

Some will get new roofs and windows; others, fire alarms; and still others updates to comply with the Americans With Disability Act.

The improvements got a thumbs up from KSU staff and faculty.

“It’s so nice to see the town and university come together,” said Paula Wright, a serials manager in the KSU library. “I’ve been here for 32 years, and there has been more improvements in the last two than in the last 30.”

“Everything is planned. It’s dovetailing,” physics administrative secretary Chris Kurtz said.

The KSU projects will be funded with $170 million in general revenue bonds that trustees OK’d in March and $16 million in capital improvement funds from the state.

The university will pay back the $11.5 million yearly debt service with $6 million in internal allocations and building repair funds; $2 million in student tuition; and $3.5 million in a new overload fee that students are paying if they take more than 17 credit hours a semester.

The news that KSU was imposing a $440 per-credit overload fee — the second highest among Ohio’s tax-supported universities — prompted students to rally and circulate a petition last spring. But there were no protests at the open house.

The KSU trustees will consider the projects at their next meeting, Sept. 12.

Carol Biliczky can be reached at cbiliczky@thebeaconjournal.com or 330-996-3729.