Elizabeth Cook: RCCC to take learning and arts outdoors

Published 12:10 am Sunday, September 11, 2016

With technical institute roots, community colleges tend to focus on the essentials of job training.

Rowan-Cabarrus Community College concentrates on that mission, too, with everything from a burn building for emergency services training to state-of-the-art equipment for advanced machinists and biotech workers. But recent North Campus improvements have opened the possibility of introducing students to  another element of campus — the great outdoors.

As President Carol Spalding points out, the college has 109 acres off Jake Alexander Boulevard, extending from the edge of Interstate 85 eastward. Buildings and parking lots take up only a fraction of the area. That leaves some 80 acres to take advantage of, to enhance learning and the student experience.

Why not turn part of that space — a grassy slope beside a stream — into an amphitheater?

“It’s ambitious, I think,” Spalding says. “It’s very future-oriented. We’re not known for having fun.”

The outdoor learning space and amphitheater are part of the college’s fundraising campaign, Building a More Prosperous Community. The public phase of the campaign was launched in January, when the college had received commitments for $5.3 million toward its $7.1 million goal.

The amphitheater would go in an area that might have been forgotten, utilitarian space, tucked between the main campus buildings and a stream behind them.

The Building a More Prosperous Community plan is to take advantage of this land and natural resources to connect campus buildings, put in walking paths and develop natural areas into what might be considered outdoor class space. Possible topics include science in the trees, wildlife habitat, water studies and environmental applications.

Phase I of the amphitheater project is done. The terrace behind the Student Center has been doubled in size, with new stairs and a ramp leading to the roadway behind the buildings,  redesigned now to also serve as a walkway connecting two parking lots. Brick pavers on either end create a gateway effect. Pavers midway on the drive create a sense of place.

Down the slope, a concrete slab has been laid with infrastructure in place for the future amphitheater.  It’s not hard to envision people seated on the hillside and nearby stairs to listen to a concert or watch a play.

“The next step will be to draw something that people will be inspired by,” Spalding says.

She wants to raise awareness of the project and its possibilities. In addition to improving the campus, the amphitheater could strengthen the tie between the college and the people of Rowan County.

“How can we make it an amenity for our students and the community?” Spalding asks.

The project comes on the heels of major improvements to the Salisbury campus. Where they once saw only tired buildings, drivers headed north on I-85 now see fresh, newly updated buildings and a landscaped parking lot.

Space totaling some  30,000 square feet has been added. Classrooms and labs were updated with new technology. Additional elevators greatly improve access for people who cannot climb stairs.

The most popular addition may be the light-filled,  indoor courtyard that has become a popular gathering spot for students.

Quality of life has come to be appreciated as much as utility — for the campus and the community, too.

The amphitheater and outdoor learning space come next, Spalding says. Phase Two has an estimated cost of $2 million.

Some of that money has been raised, she says, but not enough yet to build a true stage on the lower lawn, where the concrete slab has been installed, and finish developing the surrounding area.

Spalding says the stage should have a lot of flexibility and versatility, so it can  be used for concerts, plays, art shows and more. The area could easily seat up to 900, she says. And 1,000 parking spaces are nearby.

This could be the setting for community events as well as college functions, she says — and another way RCCC enhances life in Salisbury-Rowan. She describes the amphitheater area is  “an amenity that’s waiting to be discovered.”  First, though, it has to be built.

Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post.