Paradise regained – the new Coffman Union

Having Coffman closed for the renovation project sucks. There – I said what most of you are thinking.

You know what? You have every right to be confused and downright ornery, especially given what many of you have already suffered through: semester conversion, PeopleSoft, tuition hikes and massive campus construction. I will not try to sugarcoat any of this, but I do want to try to explain how we got to where we are today.

My guess is many of you are asking the same questions – and for good reason. Why has the main student union on campus been closed for two years? What the heck is a student union, anyway?

If you are a freshman or sophomore, you have never experienced what a student union can do to support your life on campus. If you’re a senior, then you’re on your way out (unless you’re on the five-year plan) and you haven’t had the services, programs and facilities you experienced your first two years.

Juniors were only able to experience three months of a student union on “life support.” Because it was in the process of closing down, it’s basically foreign to you too. But at least you’ll actually get to use the brand new student union, which will finally meet your needs.

For those who never experienced Coffman before it closed, let me try to paint a picture of what you are missing. It was a 60-year-old building with no air conditioning (candy bars melting on the shelves in the summer), the building’s heat literally “going out the windows” in the winter, pipes bursting causing major water leaks, quarry tile buckling, a roof in need of a $1 million-plus in repairs.

In addition, it had lots of orange and purple plastic laminate as well as a confusing floor plan. In fact, it was so difficult to find your way around that most students didn’t know how many floors there were, or that there even was a bowling alley, game room and post office.

Furthermore, student organization office space was made up of 8-foot-high modular walls in the middle of public space where computers were regularly stolen and students did not feel safe. Food was only available Monday through Friday, from 7 a.m. to 2p.m. (no evenings or weekends, and no national or local food brands). There was very little short-term parking near the building. Few activities and events were offered in the union (with exception of our strong programs like the Whole concerts, Bijou films and Special Event Concerts).

Finally, (and this is serious) at least once a week someone would walk up to the information desk and ask, “Where is Coffman Union?” People literally did not know they were in a student union. You know why? The union was falling apart and was not providing the types of services, programs and food students wanted.

All of these things resulted in daily traffic dropping from 18,000 visitors in the late 1970s to just under 10,000 in 1999 – even with enrollment figures remaining at approximately 40,000 students.

Realizing they were getting much less than what other Big Ten students got from their student unions, students rallied to renovate Coffman so it could once again meet their needs and be the “center” of campus. And in spring1999, the Student Services Fees Committee allocated $37.5 million to renovate and “build a better union.”

So why has it taken so long? To put it mildly, there have been a few bumps in the road: most notably, a 12-month delay that started with zero contractors bidding on the project due to the saturated construction market. And then when contractors finally did bid, they were millions over our budget! This required us to switch building methods, reprogram Coffman, and increase the size of the bookstore by more than 30,000 square feet. In addition, we ran into several construction roadblocks, such as low ceiling heights that wouldn’t accommodate what students asked for in a theater.

Believe me: If a project could be cursed, this one was! While I would have given anything for a crystal ball, we dealt with all the curveballs by using every resource the University had to offer. Now, with all the hurdles seemingly behind us, we’re focusing on the future and finishing the project so we can reopen in December Ö just nine months away!

What will you get for your money and inconvenience? Already, there are 400 short-term parking spaces in the new underground parking garage behind Coffman – complete with a tunnel connection directly into Coffman. Soon you’ll enjoy a 40,000-square-foot University bookstore, where all books can be purchased in one location, and where we will have the largest collection of academic trade books in the five-state area.

There will also be a variety of foods, including Starbucks, Chick-Fil-A and Einstein Brothers Bagels. There will be longer hours of operation (including weekends) and a computer lab open 24 hours per day, seven days per week. There will be such services such as U Card, a copy center, a convenience store, a bank, a postal station, ATMs and e-mail kiosks.

You’ll also enjoy plenty of study space, two fireplaces, more student organization and cultural centers office space, an improved game room and Whole Music Club, and a 400-seat multi-purpose theater with cup holders instead of tablet arms (so students can enjoy sodas and snacks during Bijou movies).

There will be a resource center, support for commuter students and a student activities office that will provide lots of opportunities for students to join one of the more than 400 student organizations – or join our SUPA program board, which provides hundreds of free and low cost programs for students.

And last but not least, it will be a place for all students to “hang their hats” between classes – complete with some of the best views on campus!

Well, there you have it. Yes, having Coffman closed for renovation sucks now, but when it reopens, you will understand what you were missing. Our student unions are the few buildings on campus that are truly funded, governed and operated by more student employees (39 percent) and volunteers (24 percent) than full-time staff (37 percent).

For seniors, I acknowledge your frustration, anger and ambivalence, but hope that someday you’ll feel your sacrifices made a difference for your fellow students. Just know we won’t forget you – you’ll always be able to call Coffman your home as alumni, and we plan to have a place of honor for you all in our building!

For everyone else, the best is yet to come Ö very soon!


Maggie Towle is director of TCSU Board of Governors. Send comments to [email protected]