The Ole Miss Student Union opened on Monday morning, over ten million dollars over budget and nearly a year late.
A bookstore, coffee shop and conference rooms opened for the first time since the union closed for renovations in 2016. The expanded union also houses a food court, a ballroom and transit hub, which have been open since the fall semester of 2017. The expansion added 80,000 square feet to the building.
“I’m Relieved — I think no one will be happier to answer the question of when the union will be open than I am now,” Bradley Baker, director of the Ole Miss Student Union, said. “We want to get this right for the students. We owe it to them.”
The project was paid for using state funding, bonds and the capital improvement fees that students are required to pay. By November 2016, the previously-$50-million project was a $59 million project. The latest update prices it at just over $60 million.
The original capital request to the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning Board in 2010 estimated a $42 million price tag on the project.
“Anytime you go to do a massive renovation like we’ve done, you find things that you don’t expect,” Baker said. Building codes were different in the 1960s and 1970s, he said, so it was hard to know what needed to be changed until renovations started.
In February 2014, the university announced a 4-year project of renovating and expanding the student union that would begin that summer.
In the summer of 2015, construction began, and a press release stated the project would be handled in phases over the next three-and-a-half years. The building was slated to open by 2019, according to multiple press releases from the university. On January 29 of this year, the university announced that the opening would be delayed until the end of the semester.
The initial February 2014 press release that announced the union expansion project said that both the book store and food court inside the student union would remain open throughout the phases of construction. When the start of construction was announced in July of 2015, the new press release only mentioned the food court remaining open.
In September of 2016, The Daily Mississippian reported that not only was the bookstore relocating to the Jackson Avenue Center in December, but the entire union would be closed to students during the following spring semester.
In the new union, students will now enjoy more space to enjoy between classes and on game days, Baker said.
Several offices and departments were relocated while construction was completed and are now in the process of moving back to the union.
“We’re excited to have everyone back together,” Baker said.
Ever since construction began, chain link fences covered with blue tarps have surrounded much of the union. The front entrance that faces The Grove has been inaccessible for several years, until the tarps and fences were removed days before spring commencement.
“We have plenty of time to work the kinks out before all of the students come back to campus in the fall,” Baker said, adding that it is sometimes difficult to know problems and solutions that come with smaller components like electrical outlets and card readers until the building is used.
Despite the consequences, many still see the construction as a necessary hardship. When the first Ole Miss Student Union was originally completed in 1976, there were 8,989 students enrolled at the university. That number had more than doubled to 19,178 in 2014 when the union expansion was announced. Planning had already been in the works for years.
“I felt like I was unwrapping a present this morning when we were pulling down the banners that were on the windows,” Baker said. “I think there are going to be some more changes that may take place during the summer, like branding and marketing, so we may not be finished with it yet.”