A hard-hatted Katherine Johnson stood in the heart of campus and beamed from behind clear safety glasses. Some of the five main buildings are still little more than shells. Brick pavers and landscaping have yet to take the place of rutted sand. Still, the president of Pasco-Hernando Community College could already sense the communal vibe that would thrive in the campus quad.
"This whole arrangement feels so warm and engaging," Johnson said. "I just love it."
The college's vision for a cutting-edge Spring Hill campus is taking shape atop a knoll just off U.S. 19 a couple of miles north of County Line Road.
On Thursday — about nine months after earth-moving equipment rolled in and six months before students show up for classes this fall — Johnson, college trustees and administrators donned bright yellow safety vests and dodged construction workers and wet paint during a tour of the $46 million project.
They oohed and ahhed their way through much of the campus's 100,000 square feet of enclosed space.
They peeked through the corners of plastic-covered windows from the second floors of the two classroom buildings, marveling at the views of shimmering Hunter's Lake.
They craned their necks to gaze at the 30-plus-foot ceilings in the 20,000-square-foot library and hoofed it up the "grand staircase" to take in the view from above.
They marveled at the cavernous size of the multipurpose center.
The tourists did have to use imaginations to see what is still to come:
• Flat-screen televisions hanging from hall ceilings to broadcasting campus news.
• Students huddling over terminals in one of six computer labs or conducting experiments in the science labs.
• Staffers in the student development center doing the nuts and bolts work of admissions, financial aid and registration.
But the progress was enough for college trustee Rao Musunuru to make an assessment, which was shared by others.
"It's going to be gorgeous," Musunuru said. "I can't wait to find myself here in August."
The right choice
About a decade ago, the college's board of trustees split on where the new Spring Hill campus would be located.
The decision came down to the U.S. 19 site and a parcel of county-owned land near Hernando County Airport. Hernando officials lobbied heavily for the latter.
Musunuru smiled Thursday when a reporter reminded him that he turned out to be the swing vote for the U.S. 19 site.
The location on Hernando's west side made the most sense, considering that the college already had campuses in Brooksville, Dade City and New Port Richey, he said. A fifth campus is planned for Wesley Chapel and could open by 2013.
But just as important as a central location is atmosphere. And 20 minutes into the tour, Musunuru knew the campus could boast both.
"It confirms we made the right choice," he said.
PHCC currently has a total enrollment of more than 15,000 students and has been climbing quickly in recent years.
The college's Spring Hill Center opened in 1979 and later moved to its current location on Spring Hill Drive. The college outgrew the small collection of buildings a few years ago, and the center will close when the new campus opens.
About 2,000 PHCC students live in and around Spring Hill and will likely have an interest in enrolling at the new campus, said Lucy Miller, a college spokeswoman.
Officials figure at least 1,800 students will enroll for the fall, Miller said. The courses will span the spectrum of disciplines, from biology, geology and physics to ethics, political science and speech communications.
Many students will take classes at a couple of campuses, Miller said.
"It will allow them more flexibility in building their schedules," Miller said.
PHCC offers associates degrees but also has an agreement with the University of South Florida, so the new campus will be a launching ground for four-year degrees.
The campus will have nine full-time professors, 45 to 50 adjuncts, 15 full-time staff members and five part-time staff members. Staffers will start to arrive by May, some of them moving from existing PHCC campuses and others to be hired in the coming months.
As the tour continued, officials with Skanska, the contractor for the new campus, hurried ahead to make sure workers stopped hammering and cutting while the tour group passed.
Skanska is a global construction company whose clients include Nissan, Ikea, the United Nations and the Hernando County school district.
Between 140 and 160 workers are on the new PHCC site at any given time, and about 80 percent of them are from Pasco and Hernando counties, Skanska officials said.
"It's a bright spot in a bleak economy," said Johnson, the PHCC president.
A village concept
Among the guides for Thursday's tour was Joe Sorci of Florida Architects, who served as director of design for the project.
The firm, headquartered in Orlando, has helped shape college campuses throughout the state. The Spring Hill campus, like the company's other projects, is the result of basic design principles and plenty of input from college officials, Sorci said.
The curving roof lines are easy to maintain and can accommodate expansions. The campus, with the five main buildings in a rough circle around an open common area, is based on a "village" concept. Views from interior spaces to common areas are abundant.
"We wanted an inviting feel, so students and faculty can collaborate in a comfortable environment," Sorci said.
Though surrounded by wetlands, there is plenty of space on the 52-acre site for more buildings so the campus can grow with demand. The current construction is just the first of three phases in the master plan for the campus.
Count Sorci among those eager to see students arrive and get to work.
"That's when the true test for us as designers comes," he said. "If they're using the natural amenities, then we've succeeded."
What's happening in Spring Hill is rare, Johnson said. On most college campuses, students, faculty and administrators might get to celebrate the opening of one or two new buildings while they're there.
"The ability to see a full-service campus rise out of the ground," she said, "it's something special."
Tony Marrero can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1431.