From left, Overseer Marjorie Perry, Student Raj Das, Student Camerin Spahn, Trustee Steve Kalafar, Vice President Charlie Fey, Athletic Director Lenny Kaplan, Trustee Stephen DePalma, President Joel Bloom, N.J. Deputy Majority Leader Paul Sarlo, County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, Trustee Peter Cistaro, Trustee Steve Cordes, Trustee Gary Dahms, Trustee Liz Garcia, Vice President Charles Dees, Trustee Phil Beachem, Former Athletic Director Mal Simon, Professor Michael Siegel and the NJIT Highlander.
Under gray skies but in jubilant spirits, some 300 people gathered today at NJIT to celebrate a groundbreaking for the Wellness and Events Center (WEC) -- a $102 million building that is the centerpiece of the university’s campaign to revamp the campus.
Once finished in the fall of 2017, the 200,000-square-foot building, nicknamed WEC, will serve as a fitness center, a sports arena and an events center in which the university will host professional conferences. As such, WEC will not only serve the varied needs of NJIT’s growing student body but also bring economic vitality to Newark.
“In its design and function, WEC is an iconic building that will serve the university and the community well for many years,” said NJIT President Joel S. Bloom. “It’s the game changer in our capital campaign to revitalize our campus.”
During the groundbreaking, NJIT also announced the extension of the NJIT NEXT Campaign, the goal of which is to raise an additional $50 million. Steve Cordes ’72, the vice chair of the board of trustees, said the university already raised $150 million dollars.
“So let’s keep it going,” said Cordes, who co-chairs the NJIT NEXT campaign. “The new $50 million will support financial aid for students, new faculty, as well as research and academic centers. NJIT is better than ever and this will allow us to push the bar even higher.”
Senator Paul Sarlo ’92 ’95, the deputy majority leader for New Jersey, was the keynote speaker for the ceremony. Sarlo jokingly said that over the last decade or so he’s done more commuting to NJIT than when he was a student. He visits NJIT often, he said, to meet with President Bloom and to see all the “exciting changes” taking place on campus. He praised Bloom for being an effective advocate for both NJIT and for higher education in the state and said he owes much to his alma mater.
“I’m the CEO of a large construction company; I’m the deputy majority leader and I chair an appropriations committee,” said Sarlo. “I’ve truly been blessed. And all of the success I’ve had in life I owe to what I learned at NJIT. I’m proud to be a part of NJIT.”
Current students who spoke also said they are proud to be Highlanders. Women’s Basketball player Camerin Spahn ’17 offered a witty account of her trials with the shortcomings of the current gym but said the experiences were nontheless valuable.
“We know that all of our hard work has paid off and that if there was one thing that we got out of the physical closeness forged from being right on top of one another at 6 a.m. in the training room, it was bonds and memories that will perpetuate the life of this building,” Spahn said. “I hope that those athletes and students who use the Wellness and Events Center will find in that space the same friendships we found in the old gym.”
WEC will be constructed on the current site of Lubetkin Field. It will extend across the length of the field, which will later be rebuilt on the north side of the building. The building is part of a $300 million building plan to overhaul the campus. Other parts of the plan include the Central King Building, whose classrooms and labs are state of the art; the Life Sciences and Engineering Building, ground for which was broken on Oct. 1; the new parking deck, located behind NJIT's Enterprise Development Center on Warren Street and the renovation of classrooms and labs all over campus. The building plan reflects the university’s evolution from a commuter school to a nationally-ranked research university. Indeed, NJIT’s growing reputation has prompted a surge in enrollment that totals more than 11,000 students.
WEC will have many amenities, just some of which include:
- A 25-meter swimming pool with diving area
- A fitness center with cardio equipment and weights
- Lounges, study areas and multipurpose rooms
- An indoor 10,000 square foot turf space
- Two practice courts for intramural and intercollegiate sports
- A running track that will encircle the concourse of the first-floor arena
- The arena will seat 3,500 people, but the bleachers are designed to retract, allowing the floor space in the arena to triple in size
- The expanded floor space will host campus events and professional conferences, with seating for 4,000
- An inside path on the first floor facilitates a walk from the subway and other areas on Lock Street to the main campus quad
WEC also serves another vital need at NJIT: Its athletes, who have outgrown the Fleisher Athletic Center, which was built in 1967, when NJIT was a commuter school primarily for men.
The limits of Fleisher was highlighted by the recent success of the Men’s Basketball team, which had a cinderella season and a David and Goliath moment in beating top-ranked Michigan.
In the wake of that win the team made national news, which noted that the Highlanders were the only Division I team in the nation not in an athletic conference. NJIT therefore had no chance of entering the NCAA tournament. The Highlanders also lacked an arena that could house Division I games. Once WEC was approved by the NJIT Board of Trustees, however, the team was accepted earlier this year into the Atlantic Sun Conference. So if the Men’s Basketball team wins its conference this season it will secure an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament, known colloquially as March Madness. And having that chance gives the team hope -- something to play for. Pre-conference play officially kicks off this Saturday against top-ranked Kentucky.
NJIT is a now a growing Division I school. But it wasn’t always such. One speaker at the groundbreaking ceremony, Mal Simon, former director of physical education and athletics at NJIT, recalled the time when the soccer team was field-less. Simon, who began his coaching here in 1955, recounted how the team used to practice in Newark’s Branch Brook Park. The players would drive their cars to the park and, after sunset, turn their car lights on to illuminate the practice field. That was a fun time, he said. But now that NJIT is a nationally-ranked university, it needs a new athletic home.
“NJIT exemplifies academic and athletic excellence and it deserves a new building like the Wellness and Events Center,” he said. "I really look forward to returning to campus in the fall of 2017 for the opening of WEC.”
The entire groundbreaking ceremony can be viewed here.
By Robert Florida