What’s new at JMU?

Changes include student apartments, new convocation center and renamed school

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The new $88 million, 8,500-seat convocation center will be a
venue for basketball games and other events. Courtesy JMU

Kevin Meaney knew the long-awaited Apartments on Grace at James Madison University would be a hit with sophomores, but he had no idea the 506 student beds would fill up in an hour.

“The apartments were in response to a need,” says Meaney, JMU’s director of residence life. “A couple of years ago, the university decided it needed to build some transitional housing.”

The $55 million, 200,000-square-foot, apartment-style residence hall opened in August. Each unit offers a full kitchen and two bedrooms to accommodate four students. Amenities include recreational areas with table tennis and pool tables, a Subway restaurant and academic spaces with desks and access to multimedia, plus study and group rooms.

The apartment-style design will open the door to new options for the university when students are away during summer break. “We are trying to develop our conference services during the summer,” Meaney said. “It’s nice to have an apartment option for adults who come in for an academic conference.”

The residence hall is just one of many new developments at JMU designed to benefit the student body and the community. The school also is planning to build a new on-campus convocation center at the corner of University Boulevard and Carrier Drive, adjacent to the East Campus Dining Hall and the Festival Conference and Student Center. The $88 million, 8,500-seat building will be a venue for basketball games, public speakers, university ceremonies, concerts, trade shows and other events.

The center was approved by the state legislature three years ago as part of the planning process for the university. The university began its fundraising efforts in April. It needs to reach $12 million in donations before construction can begin. JMU had raised $2.5 million by mid-September. Kevin Warner, the interim director of athletics communications, expects that number to jump in coming months.

“There are a number of private gifts that we feel optimistic about closing,” he says, noting there are  several naming opportunities for the building and key spaces in the structure for individuals and corporations.

The facility will replace the current 30-year-old convocation center, which Warner refers to as “an inefficient use of space.” The new center will feature more courtside seating for donors and “a center-hung video board and ribbon boards around the concourse level,” Warner says. “We’ll also have a built-in practice facility and improved office space for the coaches.”

The center also will offer eight suites as well as a club-seat section with a pregame hospitality area and center-court seats for club membership holders.

“The center is for the entire Shenandoah Valley. There is no other space like this within an hour’s radius,” Warner says. “The John Paul Jones Arena [at the University of Virginia] is the next closest. We feel it will make a big impact on the local community.”

In another development at JMU, the university recently renamed the School of Hospitality, Sport and Recreation Management as the Hart School of Hospitality, Sport and Recreation Management.  It is named for alumnus G.J. Hart and his wife, Heather, who gave the university more than $3 million. Hart is the executive chairman and CEO of California Pizza Kitchen.

“With the naming of the school, we are looking to bring a little more focus to the restaurant side. We are able to do that thanks to G.J. and his connections in the restaurant industry,” says Michael J. O’Fallon, the school’s director.

The Harts want to ensure that graduates of the school will be among the top in the nation. “My wife, Heather, and I decided to get involved as an opportunity to make a difference that’s long-lasting for James Madison University and in the lives of its students,” Hart says. “With this gift our goal is to create an environment where young people can get a fantastic, world-class education that inspires them to go on and do great things in the world. We also hope this gift encourages others who are thinking about making a difference in students’ lives to do so by supporting the university.”

The school prepares its approximately 900 students for entry-level management positions. “Our programs require internships so our students will understand the business,” O’Fallon said. “That is why our school is becoming more popular with organizations. We have recruiters that come on campus that only recruit our students.”

JMU also is reaching out to area schools to help prepare students for college. Under its Valley Scholars Program, now in its second year, JMU works with seven school districts — Harrisonburg, Staunton, Waynesboro and the counties of Rockingham, Augusta, Page and Shenandoah.

Currently there are 70 students in the program. This year JMU’s partners in the project include Blue Ridge Community College and several area businesses.

“We provide a pathway for students who come from families that believe college may not be an option because of their social or economic situation,” says Shaun Mooney, director of the program. “If students do everything that is required, JMU and its partners will pay for their college tuition. We see it as long-term investment in the valley.”

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