The opening of Elon's new convocation center this fall signals a new era for the campus.
Long before the first excavator broke ground on the 20 acres across the road from Rhodes Stadium to make way for Schar Center, there was a desire to create a new space on campus where the community could come together. In fact, it can be said the foundation for the 160,000-square-foot facility was laid in 2010, when university officials included the construction of a convocation center as part of the Elon Commitment, the strategic plan that was to guide the growth of the institution for the next 10 years.
Elon’s NCAA Division I athletics programs were becoming increasingly successful and the 1950s-era Alumni Gymnasium was no longer adequate to support the size and stature of a university with more than 6,700 students. “As we looked at the needs of this growing campus, it was clear we needed a large gathering space that would support not only the expansion of athletics but also convocations, speakers and other major campus events,” says President Connie Ledoux Book, who at the time coordinated the two-year process of developing the strategic plan under the guidance of then-President Leo M. Lambert. “To see that vision fulfilled in Schar Center is a testament to the strength of this community and the beginning of a new chapter in the history of Elon.”
Indeed, when Schar Center opens this fall, the university will be adding a facility like no other on campus, not only in size—it’s more than twice the size of Alumni Gym—but in its wow factor. “When you stand on the floor and look up, you really feel it,” says Director of Athletics Dave Blank. “I’ve given dozens of tours and there is always awe. There’s a lot of wow factor.”
Named for Elon parents Dwight and Martha Schar p’16 p’19, who contributed $9 million to the project and were among 21 donors who made leadership gifts, the facility serves as the new home for the Phoenix basketball and volleyball programs. “Dwight and Martha Schar are strong believers in education and Elon’s mission,” President Book says. “We are grateful for their generous investment, which will be a transformational facility for the university and benefit generations of students.”
The arena consist of three levels. The event level contains the arena court, two full-size practice courts, team locker rooms, coaches’ and officials’ locker rooms, weight and training facilities and other staff offices. The concourse level includes a spacious entry atrium, a large hospitality/special events room complete with flexible seating, two concession stations (one on each side), plenty of restrooms and ticketing and lounge areas, as well as administrative offices and other support spaces. The suite level houses a club area overlooking the arena, coaches’ offices for the three varsity sports and support spaces.
The project also adds 550 new parking spaces, which, in addition to the existing 266 spaces in the adjacent Hunt Softball lot, offer plenty of room for visitors. More importantly, Schar Center provides flexible spaces for athletic and academic events to take place under the same roof, which has been a key feature of the facility from its inception. “We are happy to play a transformative role in building Elon’s long-term future with this project and helping create a first-class facility where the campus community and region can experience Elon Phoenix sporting events, convocations, concerts, speakers and much more,” say Dwight and Martha Schar.
While the design is generally based on the Jack Stephens Center at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock that opened in 2005, Schar Center is uniquely Elon. As visitors approach the building, they are welcomed by a sculpture of a bronze phoenix rising from a concrete column of fire. When they enter the facility at the concourse level, they immediately get a feel for the size of the arena but also a sense of community.
“It’s a very cozy building,” says University Architect and Director of Planning, Design and Construction Management Brad Moore. “Even though it is two and half times the size of Alumni Gym, it still has a comfortable community feel when you walk into it. There are still ways to be close to one another.” That desire to be community-focused guided many of the decisions during the building process. For instance, instead of having 12 different suite boxes for 10-12 people each, Elon decided to have one large open suite with a seating capacity of 120.
As visitors venture into the concourse they encounter the Varney Boys wall, a tribute to lifelong friendships and relationships formed on campus by a group of Elon athletes who played football under legendary coach Harry E. “Sid” Varney between 1953 and 1959. The group returns to campus every Homecoming to celebrate the bond that carried them from the classroom and the field to meaningful lives after college. One of the Varney Boys, Furman Moseley ’56, and his wife, Susan, donated the funds to secure the land where Schar Center now stands. The display, Moore says, sends a strong message about the spirit of the place—a place that builds upon the best of Elon’s past to create a brighter future.
For athletics, having two practice courts within the arena makes a big difference. Moore says this was done to allow all three teams to practice or play at the same time without having to use other resources on campus. “It’s a win-win for a lot of teams,” Blank says of having everything in one location, adding that the additional space helps decongest traffic at Alumni Field House and other facilities on campus.
For instance, the men’s basketball team dressing room has been located in Alumni Gym, but to lift weights, players had to go to Alumni Field House. And if another team was using the court, players had to practice at the Phoenix Activities & Recreation Center in Danieley Center. Schar Center puts the locker rooms beside the training room and the practice courts, giving teams more flexibility to move between the spaces but without having to leave the facility. “I look forward to day-to-day convenience,” says men’s basketball head coach Matt Matheny. “I will be able to see a student-athlete work out and practice in the same facility.”
Athletics moved into the building over the summer and the impact has been immediate, particularly when it comes to recruiting. Two recruits who toured the facility in June verbally committed to Elon shortly after, volleyball head coach Mary Tendler says, and she expects others to do the same. Moore can see how that initial amazement transforms into a commitment. “Besides the initial jaw-dropping moment, as coaches walk recruits to the facility, they can see displays featuring former athletes who have gone on to play professionally,” he says. “They might start thinking, ‘Wow, I want my face on that wall, too.’”
For women’s basketball head coach Charlotte Smith, Schar Center adds another reason for her players to be proud of being a Phoenix. “When you think about this facility in comparison with a lot of facilities all over the country, it’s top notch,” she says. “It’s a first-class facility for our players to compete in. Bringing recruits during official visits, even when it was under construction, they were very impressed. The first word that comes out of their mouths is, ‘Wow.’” She is looking forward to 2020, when Elon will host the Colonial Athletic Association Women’s Basketball Championship in Schar Center. “There is nothing greater than to win a championship in your own floor,” she says. “In 2020 hopefully we can protect our turf and bring home another championship.”
Since the center will be used to host speakers and other academic events, in addition to sporting events, every detail was carefully considered to ensure the venue served truly as a multipurpose facility. For instance, instead of using the Phoenix logo throughout, the monogram “E,” Elon’s unifying mark, was used to signify the synergy of both athletics and academics. There is also very limited advertisement throughout the facility. Even the massive LED video boards at each end zone—the largest indoor wall displays in an arena in the Carolinas—have minimum built-in ads so they can easily be used during non-athletic events.
On the technology side, Schar’s state-of-the-art video control room will serve as the central hub for all other nearby sporting facilities, meaning video feeds from other sports will be centrally managed there. Students in the School of Communications will be able to use the room through the Maroon Sports program, which will give them another experience that better prepares them for professional broadcast careers.
Another feature that distinguishes this facility is its seating. While other similar arenas offer different types of seats depending on the section, Elon decided to do theater-style seats for all 5,100-plus seats available. Not only are the spacious seats comfortable but also provide easier access for visitors with disabilities. Jon Dooley, vice president for student life, says the focus on this project has been on how to best utilize it as a community resource, a gathering space that is different from the other spaces on campus. “[Schar Center] enhances a sense of community, a sense of pride,” he says. “We think of ourselves as a community, so having facilities that help us come together is important. It presents an exciting opportunity for students, a place to develop a sense of belonging.”
Input from students and other members of the Elon community has been important throughout the process, Blank says. He and his staff conducted many surveys to get a sense of the expectations associated with the arena and how these fit with the purpose and mission of the facility: to serve as a venue for large gatherings and sporting events and occasionally for other non-Elon events that align with the university’s educational mission. Dooley served on an advisory committee, which also included student representatives, that came up with recommendations for policies and procedures as well as proposed events to be held in the facility.
Blank envisions many non-sporting events taking place in Schar Center—from research presentations as part of the Spring Undergraduate Research Forum and New Student Orientation sessions and job fairs, to hosting major speakers and performances open to the public. More importantly, he hopes the facility creates a unique fan and user experience. “I want people to come and have dinner here before an event and make a family outing out of it,” he says. And while there is much pride in the final product, there is always room for enhancements. Blank and his staff will spend the first year evaluating the facility to determine what works and what doesn’t to come up with an improvement plan moving forward. “We want flexibility to get it right,” Blank says. “This is not the final piece of the puzzle but it’s a big one for the university. For the athletes, it’s a cornerstone for what we are doing. It says something about the intent of the university and will have an overarching effect on all areas of the university.”
Tendler agrees. Her team will be the first to play in Schar Center—they face North Carolina A&T on Aug. 28—and the players are excited and proud of the opportunity. “They want to win the first match in Schar Center. It’s very important to them,” she says. “Not only are our student-athletes going to work hard and win championships in this facility, they are going to get their diplomas from President Book in the same building. They’ll walk on the stage where they’ve been putting so much time and effort. That’s special.”
Other events being planned for the new arena this fall include the inauguration of President Book on Oct. 18, the Harlem Globetrotters show on Nov. 1, the women’s basketball game against the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on Nov. 6 and the men’s basketball season opener against the UNC Tar Heels on Nov. 9.
Beyond the convenience it provides athletics, Matheny is confident Schar Center will positively impact the university in countless ways. “Behind the success of any major endeavor at Elon is the fact we strive for excellence,” he says, “and Schar Center is a remarkable example of striving to excellence. It will hold so many great memories for the next several decades. It’ll be very special for Elon and for the Alamance County community in general.”
President Book certainly hopes so. As the reputation of the university increases, Schar Center will play a crucial role to attract speakers and performers who can raise Elon’s standing in the region. “Having a facility of this size and quality will put Elon on the map as a place that can host important events for the region and the state,” she says. “It marks a new era at Elon.”