Expansion in All Ways: Bill Gatton Student Center Grows with Sights on the Future

Construction work on the Gatton Student Center
An additional 34,500 square feet is being added onto the Bill Gatton Student Center for more seating at Champions Kitchen and more space for student services.
By Ann Blackford

When the new Bill Gatton Student Center on the University of Kentucky campus opened in 2018, the vision was to provide a larger space with modern technology to meet the needs of an ever growing and thriving campus community. Thanks to the philanthropic support of Bill Gatton, UK alumnus, benefactor and former trustee, the vision for a larger, completely renovated center became a reality. 
The Bill Gatton Student Center opened with phenomenal success, and the entire campus community embraced the new facility and its many offerings. The sleek, state-of-the-art center has been heavily utilized — more so and quicker than anticipated. By 2019, the need for further expansion became apparent, and once again, Bill Gatton answered the call.
Currently, the $200,000 million, 378,000-square-foot facility is a mecca for students and others to relax, study, dine, socialize and engage with student organizations. Open from 6 a.m. until midnight seven days a week during regular academic terms, the Bill Gatton Student Center offers many of the same programs and services of the original student center but with extensive upgrades. The center is home to an expanded Cats Den; a new larger ballroom; technologically advanced meeting rooms; and a high-tech, state-of-the-art Worsham Cinema, just to name a few. 
“Many students have struggled to find a seat in Champions Kitchen, so students are excited for more space to eat lunch,” says UK Student Body President Courtney Weaver. “Additionally, having more space for students to gather, do homework or relax between classes is always a win.”
But it was the popularity of the Champions Kitchen dining hall that really spurred the latest need for expansion.
Dining options at the Bill Gatton Student Center increased greatly with multiple dining concepts, more food options and health conscious offerings. As undergraduate enrollment numbers grow, so does the need for more dining venues and increased capacity in Champions Kitchen, already extensively used by students, staff and faculty. 
Scott Henry, executive director of UK Dining Partnership, says during the school year Champions Kitchen serves an average of 4,500 guests per day. Fall 2019 saw 392,043 guests from August until December, a 13 percent increase over the previous fall.
In October 2019, the UK Board of Trustees approved a proposal for up to $25 million to expand dining and student support space in the Bill Gatton Student Center. The expansion will provide an additional 350 dining seats in Champions Kitchen. An additional 34,500 square feet, roughly the size of a football field, will include a second and third floor, which will be used for student service and support efforts to be determined as plans progress. 
In February 2020, UK President Eli Capilouto accepted a gift of $13.5 million pledged by the Bill Gatton Foundation to support the expansion of the Bill Gatton Student Center. Partial funding will also be provided by UK dining partner Aramark.
“I am deeply grateful and touched by Bill Gatton’s generosity that has and will continue to have a direct, tangible impact on our students for generations to come,” Capilouto said. “Through this commitment and decades of giving to his alma mater, he is building upon an incredible legacy that is shaping our journey as the University of, for and with Kentucky.”
“UK Dining is strongly aligned with the mission of creating community, while breaking bread together in our residential dining space,” says Vigg Pulkit, resident district manager for UK Dining. “It’s a testament to our program and the love and support we receive from the UK community that we are out of capacity in year two of opening Champions Kitchen. As we continue our quest to be the best in the country, the expansion will provide a comfortable place for our community to gather, eat, rest, play and work.”
Ashley Reed, director of the UK Office of University Events, says when decommissioned in May 2015, the previous Student Center was managing nearly 13,000 meetings and events a year. With rising enrollment and an increase in registered student organizations, it was obvious UK required more space and modern technology to accommodate activities such as recruitment, conferences, career fairs, philanthropy and programming that are necessary for the campus community to succeed.
“Today, the Gatton Student Center is a state-of-the-art facility pursued by colleges, departments, registered student organizations and the Lexington community,” Reed says. “Since reopening its doors in April 2018, the center has hosted several exciting events — the National Pan-Hellenic Council Step Show, Career Fairs, Underground Formal, Capital Campaign Kick-Off, Multicultural Student Thanksgiving Dinner, Feast on Equality, Esports State Championship Tournament and Lexington Mayor Linda Gorton’s inauguration, to name a few. The Gatton Student Center has re-energized our campus, encouraging creativity among peers and providing spaces for belonging and community building outside of the classroom. With a second ballroom, the Harris Ballroom, coming online in fall 2020, we are excited to see what creative events colleges, departments and students bring to the new venue.”
Additionally, Reed says that in 2019, the Bill Gatton Student Center received the Association of College Unions International Facility Design Award, an award that celebrates excellence in the design of student-centered facilities supporting campus community building and student learning. 
“The exterior view, interior designs, grand social staircase and gathering spaces are undeniably striking. However, the most impressive part of the project was the planning and design process with students, faculty and staff. It is truly a student-centered facility that was built by and for students,” Reed says. 
The expansion of the student center will be a strong asset to the UK Visitor Center, as it will continue to attract prospective students to the campus community. 
“During a 30-minute admission session and 90-minute campus tour through the UK Visitor Center, prospective students are introduced to our campus commitment to academic success, belonging, diversity, overall well-being and, of course, the pride that comes with being a Wildcat,” says Grace Johnson, director of the UK Visitor Center. “Instead of sitting in our waiting room prior to a student’s visit starting, we often encourage students and guests to wander our home base — the Gatton Student Center. The student center can reinforce all that we try to convey during a prospective student’s two-hour visit in just one five-minute loop around the building. Students huddled together drinking Starbucks on the social staircase, entering and exiting spaces like the MLK Center, the Student Philanthropy Office, the Dinkle-Mas Suite for LGBTQ* Resources, eating together at Champions Kitchen, buying new gear at the UK Bookstore for our next home game or enjoying each other’s company in the courtyard — all help us tell the story of being a Wildcat. The Gatton Student Center allows prospective students to picture themselves as a part of our community in a way in which words may not even be necessary.”
If anyone doubts the popularity of the center, Interim Executive Director Jim Wims has the numbers to prove it. He says the previous student center averaged just over 1 million people a year using the building. Since moving into the new facility, that number has roughly doubled. 
“When I think of the Gatton Student Center as the ‘living room’ of campus, I am reminded that this is not just a facility, but rather, it is a destination — a place where the entire university community can come together to enjoy a meal, take in a movie, engage in physical fitness activities, conduct business, meet new friends or just relax near the fireplace,” Wims says. “What it says to me is, ‘welcome home.”
 The projected completion date of the latest expansion is July 31, 2021. 

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