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Rec center is heartbeat of renovation's new life

Exterior of the Recreation Center on the side.

By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online. By SUSAN McMAHON Sun Staff

LOWELL The building is empty now, a silent maze of parquet floors and still treadmills.

But close your eyes, and you can hear the squeak of sneakers on the basketball court, the whir of exercise machines and the grunts of the people working on them.

This is the new heartbeat of the campus, a building UMass Lowell has had on its wish list for close to 10 years. Now that it's finally nearing completion, now that the basketball nets are hung and the weights in place, university staff and students nearly have to pinch themselves to see if it's true.

From what school officials have seen so far, it is living up to its reputation. Prospective students and athletes who have toured the facility have already expressed their enthusiasm for the school.

'Kids who never looked at Lowell before, who wanted to go to Michigan State or BC, now are looking at Lowell,' said Dana Skinner, athletic director at the university.

The building will officially open for business Sept. 3, the first-day students return to campus. Officials are planning a grand opening ceremony involving both students and dignitaries.

It reminds staff of the grand openings that have come before, at the Tsongas Arena and LeLacheur Park. The third of the big projects involving the university and the only one funded mainly through public money the campus recreation center fulfilled the dreams of university officials who hoped for an on-campus center that wouldn't be overshadowed by the next-door ballpark.

But with its brick-and-glass exterior and grassy landscaping, the recreation center has become an aesthetic complement to the old-time beauty of LeLacheur.

In fact, games at LeLacheur Park may play an integral role in the workouts of many students. Some aerobic machines face a window overlooking the park. Skinner bets the machines will be most popular on game days, as students and staff can check out fans queuing for tickets or waiting to get in line.

Had the center been built a story higher, the university could have sold sky-view tickets for the ball games.

Windows play an integral part of many of the rooms in the facility, with views of LeLacheur Park, Fox Hall and other dormitories filling the sky.

'One of the great things about this facility is the views,' Skinner said. 'No matter which exercise you're engaged in, you can look out at the city.'

Now for some numbers.

The facility houses three basketball courts, two racquetball courts, a squash court, two multi-purpose studios, a one-eighth mile running track, a game area, two big screen televisions, and two fully equipped locker rooms.

In the fitness area, students can exercise on 12 treadmills, 16 stationary bikes, eight elliptical trainers, six stair climbers and four rowing machines.

The cost of the building: $19.5 million.

Funding for the project was first authorized in 1995, but went through tumultuous times during the construction boom of the late 1990s. When bids for the project came in higher than expected, then-Gov. Paul Cellucci vetoed changes to the bill that would have allowed for a higher funding cap for the project.

Legislators then attached the language to another bill, which passed that session.

Groundbreaking took place in 2000. Two years later, a gleaming building of brick and glass overlooks the dormitories.

Optimism about the building is running high, with the university hoping it will become a gathering center for its students and staff. Not only will the workout facilities attract them, but the common facilities such as big-screen TVs and the outdoor patio will bring in students who avoid the StairMaster like the plague, university officials said.

'We're hoping this serves as the home away from home for the students,' Skinner said.