January 25, 2012

New arena is centerpiece of UT Arlington's effort to create a college town

A new arena is part of the plan for the University of Texas at Arlington to shed a commuter school image and help recruitment.

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ARLINGTON -- Alaina Cardwell graduated from Aledo High School in 2009 with plans to attend the University of Texas at Arlington for one year and then transfer to UT Austin. But a local campus life complete with student government and sorority functions changed her mind.

"I found more opportunities here," Cardwell said, adding that projects near or on campus are helping create a college town mood. "UTA is a great university -- especially right now for incoming freshmen."

University leaders say UTA is shedding its commuter school reputation and becoming a destination college. Academic programs, enrollment growth and amenities -- like the $78 million College Park Center, which will open Wednesday -- are all part of the recruiting package.

"I think College Park Center, to me, is a metaphor for the new university that UT Arlington has become over the last decade," President James Spaniolo said. "To some people it has taken a long time to get over that long-held perception that UT Arlington was a good academic school, but mostly a commuter school and not a location where much was happening. To me, College Park represents an exclamation point of 'Yes! We can.'"

The multipurpose facility on the eastern edge of campus is the new home for the men's and women's basketball teams and the women's volleyball team. It will host conferences, high school graduations and concerts. The news media got a sneak peek at the 7,000-seat facility Wednesday.

Women's basketball coach Samantha Morrow said the new center has locker rooms, a media room in which players can study footage, and practice space. These are the frills that impress her players and that were lacking at Texas Hall, where games were played on a stage.

"It has been a detriment to recruiting kids," Morrow said.

But College Park Center will make it easier to persuade athletes -- and students interested in history, English and politics -- to become UTA Mavericks.

The center is part of the College Park District, a 20-acre development that includes the College Park retail/living area, which is still under construction. Once it is completed in August, people can eat and shop while waiting for a game or concert next door.

"It's a huge deal," said Jennifer Fox, UTA's student body president. "The entire College Park District is going to help us recruit students when they see there is a vibrant campus life here."

The college experience

Students have a picture of a typical college town.

It looks like College Station's Northgate District, the University of Oklahoma's Campus Corner or The Drag near the University of Texas at Austin. Coffee shops, eclectic clothing stores, bookstores, eateries and bars attract students as well as city residents.

"That's a key thing that has been missing here," said R.J. Williams, a UTA student majoring in broadcast communication. "People just come here and then they leave."

Offering students a complete college experience is the focus of redevelopment at colleges statewide as UT Austin, the state's largest flagship university, turns away more and more applicants. But university leaders say they want their projects to be more than brick and mortar -- they must meet the needs of today's demanding college students.

For example, Texas Tech University in Lubbock is addressing growing enrollment by building a residence hall with about 500 units. The four- and two-bedroom suites have living areas and bathrooms and are described as state of the art.

"It's not just four walls and brick," Texas Tech spokesman Chris Cook said. Private businesses have also built restaurants and housing around the campus that draw fans and keep people closer to campus during major events.

The University of Texas at San Antonio was once considered a commuter school, like UTA. But enrollment growth and redevelopment have turned it into a destination school that has a football team.

About 70 percent of students come from outside the San Antonio area, compared with about 30 percent 12 years ago, according to UTSA President Ricardo Romo.

Besides building College Park Center, UTA's moves have included renovating the Maverick Activities Center and adding residence halls. Now 4,400, or about 13 percent, of students live in university-owned housing. More than 10,000 live within five miles of campus, according to UTA. By August, when College Park opens, more than 5,000 students are expected to live on campus.

Meanwhile, the private sector built restaurants and apartments nearby. Campus buildings were added and student involvement grew. Concerts with entertainers such as Rihanna and Maroon 5 helped fill Texas Hall.

Now College Park Center takes things to a new level.

Frank Lamas, UTA's vice president of student affairs and dean of students, said a survey last fall showed that UTA was the first or second choice of 85 percent of freshmen.

"We now have a university, a community life and a university life as good as anywhere else," Lamas said. "College Park Center is certainly one of the crowning pieces."

Building excitement

Grammy-nominated entertainer Drake, who will perform at the center March 2, is creating a buzz.

"All of my friends are going crazy, so I'm getting all of my tickets for me and for them," Fox said as she waited in an online queue to get tickets before they sold out.

The buildup for the center's opening aims for big crowds. Basketball tickets for the rest of this season's home games are free.

The center opens with a doubleheader against UT San Antonio on Wednesday: the women at 6 p.m. and the men at 8 p.m. after a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

The university is revving up the action with a homecoming weekend leading up to the men's basketball game against Texas State on Feb. 11. A new student spirit group, Maverick Wranglers, has been practicing to build crowd excitement.

University and community leaders said all this work isn't to re-create Austin or College Station but to establish Arlington's own funky little college town.

"The future is in redevelopment," explained O.K. Carter, a director of the Downtown Arlington Management Corp. As UTA grows, Arlington is reinventing itself from the middle out by building on student life that includes burger joints, street festivals and college basketball games.

"They are not trying to make it downtown Austin," Carter said.

Diane Smith, 817-390-7675

Twitter: @dianestar

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