Mayor Jim Cason and Sebastian ‘U’-nite at groundbreaking event

By Lee Stephens….

Coral Gables Mayor Jim Cason is happy to unite with University of Miami’s Sebastian The Ibis for the Oct. 28 groundbreaking ceremony of the new Student Activities Center.

When the University of Miami announced a $20 million lead gift last April to help build a new Student Activities Center, administration and student leaders called the planned complex a “transformational” project.

On Oct. 28, on the very soil where that transformation is taking place, UM conducted a ceremonial groundbreaking for the 119,000-square-foot center, a facility UM president Donna E. Shalala said will be “a new home away from home for students.”

“This day has been many years in the planning,” Shalala said to a gathering of more than 200 people that included trustees, administrators, students, and the donors — Tracey and Bruce Berkowitz of the Fairholme Foundation — whose $20 million lead gift launched the center’s construction.

“The Student Activities Center was a shovel-ready project in search of a shovel,” Shalala continued, calling the Fairholme Foundation gift a blacksmith’s spark that not only forged the shovel but also helped complete “a spirited, grassroots fundraising campaign that has raised almost $25 million.”

Scheduled for completion in 2013, the Student Activities Center will include gathering places, programming space, a student organizations suite, retail outlets, and a new Rathskeller.

Arquitectonica, a Miami-based architecture, interior design, and planning firm, and Pittsburgh-based WTW Architects designed the facility.

“An iconic location” is how Pat Whitely, vice president for Student Affairs, described the new facility, which also will serve as a headquarters for student news media, including award-winning publications such as The Miami Hurricane student newspaper, the IBIS Yearbook, and the School of Law’s student publications.

“Our vision was not simply to build a new facility but to transform this part of campus,” Shalala said.

The Student Activities Center’s construction is taking place simultaneously with a parallel project to renovate UM’s existing Whitten University Center, which over its four decades of existence has seen the number of student organizations increase from 100 to more than 265. Among the University Center’s improvements: new public spaces, a new swimming pool deck, upgraded meeting rooms, an enhanced terraced patio, and lakeside performance stage for campus events.

One addition to the iconic center is already in place: a 108-foot-long mural that contains some 165 photographs that chronicle UM’s history — from presidents Bowman Foster Ashe to Shalala.

A student referendum passed in 2006 is helping to make possible the center’s renovations as well as the new center, which collectively are referred to as the Student Center Complex.

Student Government president Brandon Mitchell, who campaigned on a platform that created a “Spirit the U” initiative, called the new center “a historic addition to a campus that is already known throughout the nation.”

Designed to support student life and involvement at UM, the new Student Activities Center will provide even more programs that involve students in citizenship, leadership, community, and spirit. Undergraduate student government, graduate student association, and law school student organization offices will be housed there. The Department of Student Activities and Student Organizations and the William R. Butler Center for Volunteer Service and Leadership Development also will relocate to the center when it is completed.

The center’s top floor will include a multipurpose room with seating for 800 and a panoramic view of Lake Osceola, and it will be equipped with video and sound technologies to accommodate banquets and other campus ceremonies. The Lakeview Terrace will provide additional space for major campus events, receptions, meetings, and even small performances.

“What the kids have wanted was this facility,” said Leonard Abess, new UM Board of Trustees chair.

He noted that the project could not have gone forward until someone stepped up to help make it possible, referring to the Berkowitz’s $20 million lead gift.

“The center will benefit the neighbors and Coral Gables,” said Tracey Berkowitz, who is a UM trustee. “Hopefully, everyone will have a chance to enjoy it.”

The Fairholme Foundation’s past involvement with and support for the University of Miami includes Executive Medicine, Athletics, The Launch Pad, and the Parents Fund.

At the end of their remarks, Bruce Berkowitz surprised everyone at the ceremony by proposing a name for the facility, calling it the Shalala Center, which drew a standing ovation from those in attendance.

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