Once upon a long ago, the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) was a sleepy commuter school, tucked away in Catonsville at the intersection of Wilkens Avenue and Rolling Road, a branch of the University of Maryland.

The school’s arena, known at the Retriever Activity Center (better known as “The RAC”), was a reflection of the early days of the campus. It’s pretty much your standard multi-purpose auditorium, with bench seating and a track around the upper level; it’s home to the university’s basketball and volleyball teams, and a variety of other events, notably the slew of local high school graduation ceremonies that are presented there every spring.

But that was then, and this is now. And now is UMBC’s 50th anniversary year.

Coincidentally or not, UMBC, a university that has earned a sterling reputation as a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) hub under the leadership of its charismatic president, Freeman Hrabowski, is taking its latest step up — and building a new, 172,000-square-foot multi-purpose facility that will be used not only for NCAA Division I sports and commencement exercises, but hopefully a plethora of events, on the campus’s south side, adjacent to UMBC’s soccer stadium.

The green light for the project was given when Maryland Board of Public Works approved a request for $29.4 million for site work, infrastructure, concrete and electrical, precast stadia construction and steel work for phase one of the $85 million, 5,000-seat event and athletic center, to be built by the Baltimore-based Barton Malow Co.

Site work is underway, with the official groundbreaking forthcoming when the weather breaks.

Today’s Needs

While the 175,000-square-foot RAC, which has a capacity of 3,500, and the new building will be almost the same size in terms of square footage, the actual playing area at the new multi-purpose center will be 40% larger, said Joe Rexing, director of facilities management at UMBC, who pointed out that the new facility will mainly be used for sports and big events, whereas the RAC also houses a gym and a pool.

“This project is also about accommodating more students with more on-campus events,” Rexing said, “as well as the availability to the local community. [The RAC] can’t do that now,” he said, adding that all of the athletic program offices will move to the new facility, including sports medicine and treatment, when it rises on a grassy slope at Commons Drive and Hilltop Circle, just down from Giffen Hill.

To get an idea of the size of the new facility, know that the RAC houses two gymnasiums under one roof. It will remain in use for physical education classes and student recreation; however, its days as an adequate attraction at UMBC are long over.

“The university has gotten too big for the RAC,” said Rexing, noting that the new center, for a graduation ceremonies, will hold 6,000 (its 5,000 capacity, plus 1,000 folding chairs) spectators “and the new building will be strictly a multi-purpose facility, with full seatbacks.”

Get Rockin’

Rexing said that the needs of local high schools came into play during the consultant’s assessment, too, since there is no indoor facility in southwestern Baltimore or Anne Arundel County of its general size.

While the $85 million cost of the new facility will come from an auxiliary bond from the University System of Maryland, Rexing also pointed out that obtaining any additional donors for the multi-purpose center could be a challenge.

While UMBC has hit the half-century mark, “We’re still a relatively young campus, so we don’t have as many graduates who have had a full career that might be able to make large contributions,” like the University of Maryland College Park or The Johns Hopkins University do, he said.

For the sake of comparison, the new center will be similar in size to the new SECU Arena at nearby Towson University, “though Towson’s court is not removable and ours will be,” Rexing said, adding that UMBC’s building also will have a multi-purpose room for meetings, etc. “It’s being built in the hope that it will open opportunities to new markets, like big-time concerts.”

A New Day

Tim Hall, UMBC’s athletic director, said that the decision to build the event center came prior to his arrival in July 2013, but also said the news “made it more attractive for me to come here.

“Currently, all of our Division 1 program is housed in the RAC, which was not built to serve the university in its present state,” Hall said. “I think Dr. Hrabowski recognized that, and I think the new facility will put us on the map internationally and make the value of a UMBC degree worth even more.”

While Hrabowksi’s efforts to bring UMBC into the higher levels of the academic world are well-known, “He realizes that athletics also assist in building the college’s profile in various ways, including undergrad spirit, and in our regional and national profile,” Hall said.

UMBC is a member of the America East Conference, which also includes other universities that place a high value on academics. “What we want to offer,” said Hall, “are competitive Division 1 programs that will always emphasize excellence, as well as the appropriate balance between athletics and academics.”

That makes having all of the assets for student-athletes in one building, including administrative offices and an extra practice floor, a good thing — even at UMBC, where Hrabowski insists that all students understand, as he likes to say, that math is fun.

‘Game Changer’

And Hall is on board with the versatility the new center will offer, too.

“Having this multi-purpose center” not only for sports, but also for concerts, events, conferences, intermural sports, prominent guest speakers, etc., “will be transformational for our campus,” he said.

Terry Hasselstine, the executive director of Maryland Sports, agreed.

“The new arena will be a game changer for UMBC,” said Hasselstine. “It changes the whole vibe of the campus, and I think we will see a previously unseen integration of the university’s various sports programs and that they will all rise to a new level.

“Bear in mind that UMBC will have a premiere small facility on the top of the hill that will allow it to present not only sports and the usual large graduations, but concerts, conferences and other events that will allow it to be able to generate revenue and draw more attention to its already high educational profile.”

And that’s part of what Jen Dress, assistant director, major events and programs, in the Student Life Office at UMBC, is looking forward to.

“There has been a great deal of talk about not just what it means for the athletic program, but for student life and the area in general,” said Dress, noting that a naming rights deal is in the works. “We haven’t had any big talks about the center’s different uses yet, but I think people in the surrounding community will become more aware once the steel starts going up.

“And who knows?” she queried. “Maybe one day, Disney on Ice will come to UMBC.”

Dress has been at the university for 15 years and has seen UMBC’s shift from a commuter campus to a residential campus. She thinks that “the new multi-purpose center will be an opportunity that people on campus and in the area,” she said, “have not been able to see themselves in.”