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By Used with permission from the Boston Globe Online. Christine McConville, Globe Staff Correspondent

This city's old-times would hardly recognize Northern Canel these days.

Next week, when the University of Massachusetts at Lowell opens its doors for the fall semester, plenty of newcomers, as well, will be in disbelief. Near the banks of the Merrimack River, in the once blighted Northern Canal neighborhood, the school is opening its $19.5 million sports and recreational complex.

With its red brick, glass, and steel exterior, the center - which is referred to on campus as the CRC, shorthand for Campus Recreation Center - pays tribute to the mill city's industrial past, but it also acknowledges Lowell's future.

After six years in the making, the new center is poised to become the urban campus's crown jewel. Officials are understandably excited; the facility is the school's first new nonresidential building since 1967, and it replaces a gym that was built in the late 1800s.

The center, with its state-of-the-art, soft-on-the-knees running track and high-tech aerobics studios, is the latest addition to a $60 million cash infusion into the neighborhood.

Next door, there's LeLacheur Park, a $12.5 million complex that opened in 1999. The high school's baseball team and the city's professional team, the Lowell Spinners, both play there.

And just down the street, at the end of the $6 million federally funded riverwalk, there's the Tsongas Arena, a $28 million facility which opened in 1999. In addition to accommodating concerts and conferences, the arena is also where the UMass-Lowell hockey team and the city's pros, the Lowell Loch Monsters, play. Before the arena was built, the school's hockey team traveled to Billerica to play home games, said the school's athletic director, Dana Skinner.

The riverwalk is a mile-long reprieve from the daily grind of the city. It winds along the river behind the Lawrence Mills, a 12-acre complex that's also slated for rehabilitation.

The new recreation center is a university project, but the arena and the park were products of a town and gown collaborative, Skinner said.

For now, the center will be open only to the university's 13,400 students, faculty, and staff. There will be community programs for local youth, too. But until the administrators determine how much use the facility will get from its core members, people not affiliated with the school won't be allowed to join as members. That's probably going to change next year, Skinner said.

"We need a year to understand the types of programs and the community's needs," Skinner said.

By improving student amenities, the school hopes to boost its profile in the competitive collegiate market, and by helping UMass Lowell do that, the city stands to benefit as well, Skinner said.

"We are so connected to the city," Skinner said. "So as the image of the city improves, so do our projects. So we need to join forces."

"In the past, the university was always considered separate from the city, but we realized in the early 1990s that we need to work together," said state Representative Thomas Golden, a Lowell Democrat, who earned his bachelor's and master's degrees at UMass-Lowell.

He said all the work in the area has created a gateway between the university and downtown Lowell.

"If you walk around there, you'll see a lot of different projects, all funded through the federal government, the state, and the city, all working together," he said.

State funding for the 650,000-square-foot facility was secured in 1995, and a host of private individuals contributed, too.

"It was all funded back when [the state] was doing well," Skinner said, as he strolled through the airy complex and watched as students and workers scrambled with last-minute opening-day details.

From the oversized plate-glass windows to the graceful maple doors, the entire building is a showpiece designed to attract top-flight athletes and students.

There are three basketball courts, two racquetball courts, and a squash court. There are 12 treadmills, some still wrapped in protective plastic coverings, in addition to stationary bikes, stair climbers, free weights, and weight machines. There's the lounge with a large-screen television and seating space for about 40 people and a lot of little perks, such as the sound system that pipes music into every room in the building.

"The biggest challenge will be monitoring the music that comes out of that sound system," Skinner said.

The exercise rooms, where soon aerobic instructors will be belting out instructions over the latest hip-hop tunes, offer panoramic views of the riverfront, and a handful of exercise machines will be hooked up to local cable television providers, so students can catch up on world news and music videos while they sweat.

Skinner said that up until now, the school's recruiters had a tough time competing with less urban campuses and all the amenities other schools may offer.

"In the past few years, we've softened up that image, with more landscaping and less concrete, but we still are an urban institution," he said.

Because the school's Costello Gymnasium is used mostly by the school's varsity athletes, this will be the first exercise facility offered for free for many of the school's students. The Costello gym still houses the school's swimming pool.

Elizabeth James, the school's marketing director, said the university has gotten increasingly popular in recent years. This year, for the first time ever, there's a waiting list of students seeking on-campus housing. Freshmen applications were up 10 percent from last year, and the number of accepted students indicating they will attend has increased 3 percent, James said.

In 1996, the average SAT score for incoming freshmen was 1017; this fall, school officials predict that score will jump to 1083.

Skinner said his student athletes are viewed as stronger competitors and the new playing fields and arenas played a role in that.

Two years ago, the school joined a new athletic conference, the Northeastern 10, a conference that Skinner called "a more competitive regionally based conference with quality schools."

For years, the school had tried to move beyond the New England Collegiate Conference, and Skinner said the upgrade in facilities, such as the new baseball park and arena, had just as much to do with its inclusion in the Northeastern 10 as the quality of its teams.

Last week, as opening-day deadlines loomed, the center was a work in progress. The locker rooms still needed signs, and there were mirrors and paintings to be hung. Students scurried about, unloading boxes and preparing for the facilities grand opening on Tuesday.

And in the midst of it all was Skinner, who stopped periodically on his tour of the nearly complete facility and shook his head.

"I can't believe it," he said.