Editorial: Don’t let Wood Center fall prey to “fires of commerce”

Spencer Tordoff / Web Editor

Recently, details have emerged about a pair of long-rumored plans to expand retail space in Wood Center. I find that these ideas for the future of our student center have me thinking of a scene from “Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers,” wherein the evil wizard Saruman speaks in sweeping tones about the “fires of industry” while the existing landscape of Isengard is torn apart to facilitate manufacturing.

Completed in 1972 and named for UA’s fourth president, Wood Center is rich with character in no small part due to its many peculiarities. According to university documentation, the center “was designed by a UA alumnus to provide students with an antidote to cabin fever.” The central “stairs to nowhere” were built to accommodate a third floor, which was scrapped due to issues with permafrost after the stairs were in place. According to one of my favorite campus myths, the windows that top Wood Center’s distinctive, monolithic ceiling were meant to bring in the scarce sunlight of winter months—but due to a misread blueprint, they point west, bringing in almost none.

These elements, which some might view as flaws, combine to make our student center charming and homey. It’s retained more or less the same feeling since I was a kid, sent into the arcade with a handful of change to keep me occupied while my dad worked on his master’s thesis. Wood Center is, I can say without hesitation, my favorite building on campus.

But time and progress march on, and though the center maintains its charm for now, change is in the air. The building’s expansion, finished just last year, offers dining services and a coffee shop, replacing the old Lola Tilly Commons. (The expansion is also, notably, not owned by UAF; we’re leasing the building back from its financiers, Community Properties Alaska, Inc., for the foreseeable future.) The Office of Information Technology has detailed plans for a new technology retail outlet and help desk in the area that was Wood Center’s previous coffee shop – a space was once set aside to be the offices of this newspaper.

The newest plans under consideration concern the campus bookstore, presently operated by a branch of the textbook wholesaler Follett Corporation. Seeking a more desirable retail space, the company intends to move their retail outlet from its current Constitution Hall location into Wood Center. These plans would, at the very least, displace the venerable bowling area. At most? ASUAF and the games area will have to move as well.

Perhaps I’m old fashioned, but I believe a student center is a space meant to cater primarily to students rather than commercial interests. Though jokesters on Yik Yak may find it a distasteful comparison, consider UAA’s Student Union Facility. Their structure includes offices and meeting rooms for their student government, the headquarters of their student newspaper and even a remote DJ booth for their student radio station. Commercial interests are not excluded by any means and a variety of retail options are available in the building, but student interests are front and center. Meanwhile, at UAF, two of our student governance groups already operate outside the student center, and the one remaining inside may soon be ushered out the door.

Student centers should, by definition, provide the tuition-paying public with facilities which cater to their activities and interests. Although retail space is a vital part of that mission, it is by no means the primary element. But in times of budgetary crisis, an administrative focus on fiscal solvency can cause leadership to lose sight of the importance of dedicated, student-oriented space on campus. UAF’s administration should remain vigilant, even in these trying times, to ensure that the fires of commerce do not burn away the the student-focused charm of our Wood Center.

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