New gym a reality

An eight-lane indoor pool will one day serve a swim team.
An eight-lane indoor pool will one day serve a swim team.

4 facts about Lois Rhame West Health, Physical Education and Wellness Center

The entire Peabody building would fit inside the new gym, which houses four full-length basketball courts.

In the workout areas, each treadmill has its own television screen. That turned out to be a cheaper option than installing TVs on the walls.

The new cornerstone was made of marble from a bathroom in Peabody.

Workers moved the old basketball floor at Peabody into the new building, and seats from the old gym will be brought over as well.

Who is Lois Rhame West?

A 1943 graduate of Winthrop Training School, West is the widow of former South Carolina Gov. John West. She played intramural basketball in Peabody Gymnasium as a student.

Then as first lady from 1971 to 1975, she became a steadfast advocate for physical education.

West is expected to attend a dedication ceremony at the new building this fall.

The new physical education and wellness center at Winthrop University fulfilled one of its top goals last week, even before students returned to campus to start using it.

In a scene familiar at any college in America, a tour guide was leading a high school senior and his father through the various buildings, touting the reasons to choose Winthrop.

A glimpse inside the school's latest addition provided one more.

"They walked into the weight room, and he just gasped, seeing all that new equipment and the size of the new facility," said Margaret Williamson, Winthrop's dean of enrollment management.

That's exactly the kind of reaction Winthrop leaders envisioned nearly two decades ago when they hatched a plan to replace aging Peabody Gymnasium. Many incoming freshmen were 2 years old when the effort got under way in 1991.

"I've spent almost a fourth of my life trying to get this building," said Walter Hardin, the school's associate vice president for facilities management.

It took that long to raise money and overcome construction delays on the $27 million building, officially known as the Lois Rhame West Health, Physical Education and Wellness Center.

A westward move

Now, Winthrop is counting on its investment to pay off. With enrollment expected to grow by 2,000 students over the next decade, the new facility will be a major recruiting tool -- and a key step toward bringing a broader vision to life.

The West Center is the first of what President Anthony DiGiorgio calls a "three-part reincarnation" that will include a neighboring campus center and library. Situated in a new "heart of campus" on the western side, the buildings are designed to complement Winthrop's architectural history.

"Prior to this president, there was not a cohesive approach to campuswide planning," said Karl Folkens, chairman of Winthrop's board of trustees. "Look at Wofford and Richardson (residence halls). Architecturally, they have nothing to do with the campus. With this president, there is truly that sense of cohesiveness."

The projects also connect to a long-term effort to link Winthrop with the nearby Textile Corridor, an area of old mills where condos, shops, restaurants and a public park are envisioned.

"It's a perfect fit for what we're trying to accomplish," said Lynn Stephenson, the chief developer at the old Rock Hill Printing & Finishing Co. property, commonly known as the Bleachery. "When we use the term 'hub,' we need many elements of entertainment and activity. We can feed into all that energy here at the Bleachery."

Recent Winthrop graduates paid a considerable price for the West Center -- ultimately for the sake of future generations.

Since the fall of 2005, students have paid a $150 fee per semester to help cover construction costs. A student advisory board agreed to the fee in 2003.

But because the West Center encountered a year of construction delays, many students who paid won't be able to use the new building as they had hoped.

"We really didn't get to experience any of it," said T.J. McConnell, a 2005 graduate now working at Bank of America in Charlotte. "It's frustrating because we've been the ones who have paid for a lot of the funding. The planning could have been a little bit better."

Winthrop blames construction setbacks. Building materials such as steel, which is in short supply worldwide, were late in being delivered. Relocating utility lines also took longer than expected. The building came in at $2.1 million over budget.

An official said the university wanted to take its time to make sure it was done right, rather than rushing to meet the construction deadline.

Some graduates have suggested Winthrop grant them access to the center as an alumni perk. The school says it needs to spend the first year getting settled, then will consider that possibility.

Graduates aren't the only group who will share the burden. In June, the school announced a 6.24 percent per-semester tuition increase, equaling $470 more than last year. University officials attributed much of the increase to a $272,000 shortfall in state money, plus inflation and costs of new programs, such as those in the West Center.

However, 2 percent of building costs have been invested in energy-saving features that will pay for themselves in nine years. Among them:

• Overhead lights stay off until sensors detect a person entering a room.

• Skylights allow natural light to cut down on demand for artificial light.

• A dehumidification system in the pool saves 200,000 gallons of water per year.

The building will be among the first in York County to earn a green building rating for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design The designation comes from the U.S. Green Building Council.

Improvement over Peabody

For the school's physical education staff, the West Center might as well be a luxury resort.

Built in 1915, Peabody housed a maze of narrow hallways and cramped offices. It is a far different feel than the bright, airy openness in the new center.

The department already has moved into the new classrooms and offices.

"We're excited that the air conditioning works," said Stevie Chepko, chairwoman of the health of physical education department.

"Across the board," she added, "it will enable us to do things we haven't been able to."

An eight-lane indoor pool will one day serve a swim team. An indoor climbing wall will cater to outdoors buffs. Activities rooms will house expanded yoga and Tae Kwon Do classes.

Winthrop is quick to point out the building offers the same features as the Strom Thurmond Center at the University of South Carolina, with the exception of an outdoor swimming pool.

"Having the full plate of amenities all in one building will make a huge difference," Chepko said. "We now think we have such a magnificent presence. Frankly, I think it will help recruitment across this campus."