Groton — The University of Connecticut at Avery Point opened the doors to a new $9.7 million student center Wednesday, one that Campus President Michael Alfultis hopes will be "transformative" for the campus.
The center includes a new kitchen, cafe, student lounge, terrace with outdoor seating, game area with billiards, a ping-pong table and a meeting room that doubles as performance space. The building wraps around a renovated, 300-seat theater that was updated as part of the project.
"It's definitely bright and more open," said Normandy Avery, 19, a sophomore from North Franklin, working in the café. "It's definitely a place to come and hang out."
"It's a lot more modern," said Caitlin Ferguson, 20, a junior from Stonington who was also working at the café. "It looks like we're actually going to UConn."
University, city and state officials gathered for a ribbon cutting before the doors were opened to students.
"It's dazzling," said state Rep. Elissa Wright, D-Groton. "It's an exciting way to begin an academic year."
The 7,000-square-foot center is roughly comparable in size to the old student center, a former Coast Guard building demolished in January 2012. The project took about two years to compete.
S. Fiske Crowell Jr. of the architectural firm Sasaki Associates Inc. said the center was designed to use space as efficiently as possible. He said students can move furniture around to accommodate student groups or set up for performances.
"It's sort of a student commons," he said.
Physics professor Gai Moshe said the new center is wonderful, but what the campus really needs is a new academic building.
"Here we are teaching in a less than acceptable environment," he said. Moshe said classrooms are outdated, they can't accommodate new technology and the university should address that.
"We should not forget this is what we need," he said. "We're here to teach."
University spokeswoman Stephanie Reitz said the university is updating its academic plan, and that will set academic priorities, which will influence future investment on buildings. She said the legislature approved $15 million for the Avery Point campus, part of which would be spent improving docking areas for research vessels.
The rest would be spent renovating two buildings, with specifics to be determined.
UConn President Susan Herbst said completion of the student center marks the first new construction at Avery Point in a decade and recognition of the importance of student life.
She said the new center would change social dynamics on the campus.
"It will be packed day and night," she said.