DeKALB – When Northern Illinois University senior Ibrahim Zidan first walked into the $20.9 million, newly renovated ground level at the campus’ Holmes Student Center, he said all he wanted to do was breathe, because the space felt so much more open than it was 18 months ago.
Zidan got a sneak peek into the new facility Thursday, which will open to the public, NIU community and returning alumni in time for homecoming weekend Saturday beginning at 8 a.m. The building has undergone significant work since May 2018 to create open spaces, a 6,000-square-foot bookstore with Huskies gear, conference and study areas, and new food offerings, including Starbucks, Qdoba, a grab-and-go convenience store and a pub-style eatery that will also feature local craft beer and wine.
A native of Burbank majoring in rehabilitation and disability services, Zidan, 21, commutes from his job in Chicago every day and said the improved waiting area in the center off Lucinda Avenue is also a plus.
“There’s light everywhere,” Zidan said of the new space. “It has a very comforting and unity feel to it. Something to definitely wake you up, when you can just walk in and be like ‘OK, I’m ready to tackle this day.’ ”
Originally called The University Center, the building opened in 1962 and then-NIU President Leslie Holmes described the space as a “hearthstone” of campus to unify the community.
In 1968, the center doubled in size with the addition of a west wing topped by a 16-story tower, and in 1974, the building was renamed the Leslie A. Holmes Student Center.
Renovations to the center were identified as a priority after a 2014-15 campus study, including student input, showed students wanted more cohesive space on campus and dining resources. The project was funded by $20 million in Build America Bonds and an additional $900,000 for food venue build-outs.
Some of the features are still under construction and will open incrementally in the coming months, such as Qdoba in March, and The Huskie Den, a pub-style eatery with a sports-bar theme that will offer half-pound pub burgers, BLTs, Italian beef, barbecued ribs, Wisconsin-style fried cheese curds and deep-fried Twinkies.
The ground level features 8,000 square feet of lounge space, an open plan and couches surrounding a fireplace overlooking the MLK Commons.
A 10,000-square-foot highlight of the floor features the Organizations and Student Involvement Suite, which looks like a modern, open office space, with white boards, tables, couches and offices for student programming.
Kelly Wesener Michael, associate vice president for student affairs, chief student affairs officer and dean of students, said student input was a significant part of the process.
“We did a lot of surveys as we began to develop this concept to understand how the students wanted the space to be used,” she said. “Even the color scheme that would be most comfortable to them.”
Billiards tables and chairs also line the space surrounding
The Depot, a new grab-and-go style convenience store will offer sandwiches, salads, parfaits, snacks and, beginning in January, a deli counter.
Dan Koenen, executive director of NIU's campus dining services, will oversee all the dining services in the space, and said the 2,400-square-foot Starbucks (a top priority for students surveyed) will employ about 50 students and four full-time staff.
“Starbucks generally owns their stores, but they license to colleges and universities, airports, grocery stores,” Koenen said. “So this will operate just like the Starbucks on Lincoln Highway.”
NIU staff said the goal of the aged student center was to reenergize student life, said Mike Stang, assistant vice president for student affairs.
“It’s hard to have a student center if it’s not the center part of campus,” Stang said. “So the idea is to bring students here to have something for them to come here for, and then they get a chance to actually connect with their friends, utilize the services here that are available for them and really become the center of campus.”