NJIT hopes ‘The WEC’ helps college and community

File photo The new Wellness Center on the NJIT campus.

Marjorie Perry, the CEO of her own Newark-based construction and management company and a co-executive vice chair on the board of overseers at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, summed up the university’s impressive 220,000-square-foot Wellness and Events Center this way:

“This is what we do here,” she joked during its ceremonial ribbon-cutting earlier this month. “We build things.”

Transformative buildings, it appears.

Yes, The WEC is the latest — and most dramatic — building in the massive $436 million upgrade of the school’s Newark campus.

And, yes, the building will prove to be a dramatic upgrade to the school’s student-athletes, with its 3,500-seat basketball arena, swimming pool and fencing facility, as well as numerous training and workout rooms.

But school and local officials are hoping what its being called The WEC is much more than just an athletic facility. They feel it will become a focal point, not only for the university, but for the Newark community as well, helping the school increase what already is a strong connection to the local business community.

“This is a state-of-the-art building that has multi-purposes,” NJIT President Joel Bloom said. “I want to focus on multipurpose, (because it) is one of the things we wanted to make sure we all understood on this campus.

“Yes, it’s an athletic center … but, it’s also a conference center.”

The conference center, Bloom said, can hold up to 4,000 people, fulfilling a goal he shared with Newark Mayor Ras Baraka.

“The mayor and I have talked about how do we get more people to understand, respect, respond and participate here in Newark,” Bloom said at the ceremony. “Mr. Mayor, we can have 4,000 people here. It’s a conferencing center and it’s important in the industries in which we train our students.”

Steve DePalma, the chair of the school’s board of trustees, agreed.

“The WEC isn’t just a gym, it’s a building that brings more life to our campus,” he said. “It will be a critical component for our efforts to engage and partner with business, industry and government to spur economic development and create opportunities for our students and our graduates.”

DePalma said The WEC joins the recently completed Life Sciences and Engineering Center (which opened this fall) and the renovated Central King building (which opened last spring) as upgrades the university needed to make to maintain its place in higher education.

“This campus has undergone a remarkable transformation in recent years, and that transformation was indeed necessary,” he said. “NJIT is one of the premier technological universities in the United States. And, in order for us to maintain that stature, it was a necessary to invest in facilities that support the academic needs of our students, the research needs of our faculty, the economic development needs of our city, state and region.

“The board of trustees recognized this need and were very courageous moving forward to create spaces that will enable NJIT to engage and collaboration with business partners and community organizations as well as attract national organizations and conferences.”

State Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Wood-Ridge), the Senate’s deputy majority leader and the chief operating officer of Joseph M. Sanzari Construction, said it was important for the school to get the funds needed to open the building.

“I come here all the time to talk about opportunities and how this institution can continue to grow,” he said. “Every time I drive into this campus, I get excited as an engineer (and) as a COO of a large construction company. The economic development that’s here, the reinvigoration of this entire area, block by block, is really a credit to all of you. This is not just about this institution, this is about the revival and the reinvigoration of this entire area.”

(READ MORE from ROI-NJ on the Wellness and Events Center.)

For Sarlo, it’s personal.

He not only earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the school, he also is a member of the NJIT Athletic Hall of Fame.

“We’re going to continue to ensure that NJIT has a seat at the table, to make sure that they receive they receive their fair share and to make sure our scholar-athletes get their fair share.

“As a former athlete, I’m excited about the opportunities for our scholar-athletes, but we all know our engineering students these days are much different than the engineering students of years ago. They are a much more well-rounded student who wants to do more than just sit in a classroom and study. They want to be engaged, physically involved, intramural sports, group settings, where they can express both physically and mentally, and that’s what this WEC center will do. This will continue to attract well-rounded students, not just from New Jersey, but across the country.

“This is a great day for the city of Newark, just as it’s a great day for NJIT.”

Baraka couldn’t agree more.

“This is not only an opportunity for the school, it is an opportunity for the city,” he said. “It represents where the city is going. The renaissance that is happening here, NJIT is an intricate part of that. You are on the forefront of all the things that are going on in this city.”

Baraka, a former Newark school principal, said he understands the importance the school can have on local high school students.

“This center here will represent so much for many people in this community,” he said. “Opening up this building is in the end of our fruits of labor and the discussions that we’ve talked about expanding this university, making sure that we take all of these students and put them down there on Broad Street to expand the arts, the culture, the sports, the entertainment of this community. Let people know that Newark is an outstanding place to be.”

Putting the student in student-athletes

NJIT President Joel Bloom offered a simple reason when he announced plans to move the school to Division I athletics more than a decade ago, saying he wanted the students to compete at the highest levels academically and athletically.

The school became Division I in 2009, but Bloom is proud of the fact the athletes have not forgotten about being students.

“My wife, Diane, and I every now and then run into them at the airport because we attend some games out of state,” he said. “And you will see our athletes, they are reading material, they are listening to recordings of courses they may have missed, they’re on their laptops. These are truly scholar-athletes at this institution. And our graduation rate.  Our 3.0 average for our total group of scholar-athletes is just amazing.”

Michael Siegal, a professor of mathematics and the school’s faculty athletics representative, agreed.

“At NJIT, we have great students from New Jersey, but in athletics we have great students from all over the world,” he said. “And I love the diversity they bring to the university.

“Over the years, I’ve learned a few things about NJIT athletes. They are incredibly dedicated to their sport, but at NJIT they are definitely students first. I’ve discussed quantum physics research with a tennis player from Spain and biology research with a female athlete from Illinois.”

Siegal saluted Jabarry Goodrich, a men’s volleyball player from Barbados, who became the first student-athlete at NJIT to earn an NCAA postgraduate scholarship.

Athletic Director Lenny Kaplan, who has championed a new facility for years, said it will help the school increase the quality of its student-athletes even more.

“The excitement of our student-athletes, coaches and staff is immeasurable,” he said. “Make no mistake, this building represents one of the most exciting times in the history of NJIT, more specifically, our athletic department. It will allow us to compete for greater talent, athletically and academically. It will allow us to grow stronger, more competitive as an athletic department and a university.”

Inside the WEC

The following are just some of the benefits of New Jersey Institute of Technology’s new multipurpose Wellness and Events Center.

  • Athletics: The complex will support NJIT athletes in baseball, basketball, fencing, lacrosse, soccer, swimming and diving, tennis, track and field, and volleyball, with dedicated locker rooms and athletic staff offices, a full-length practice court, a main-concourse running track, an 11,580-square-foot turf room and a 25-yard/eight-lane swimming and diving pool. While the building can seat a capacity crowd of 3,500 for basketball, officials said the arena is transformable to meet the programmatic needs of different sports events, and features a press box for the soccer stadium and an ESPN production room.
  • Training and wellness: The training room features three hydrotherapy pools, as well as a strength and conditioning room, to enrich the development of student-athletes. The 5,710-square-foot fitness center offers access to fitness and strength training equipment, weight stations, racquetball courts and group exercise space for activities such as yoga, aerobics and Pilates.
  • Community spaces: The building not only offers various places for students to congregate, socialize and study, but also functions as a site for events to be held right in the community, as retractable grandstands enable the arena to easily convert to a hall for concerts, conventions, convocations and more.
  • Learning spaces: The building includes a 90-seat tiered lecture room in addition to high-tech meeting rooms and open floor space for science fairs and competitions.

Building boom

A look at the cost of NJIT’s construction projects:

Warren Street Village: $82.4M
Central King Building: $99M
Life Sciences & Engineering Building: $21M
Wellness and Events Center: $110M
Parking Garage: $22M
Faculty Memorial Hall: $20M
Upgrades to existing facilities: $82M

Total: $436.4M

Note: State funding provided $120M.