WENTWORTH — Facelifts make a real difference when you’re nearly 50.

And Rockingham Community College’s Harold W. Whitcomb Student Center got a mighty good one for $1.4 million.

College leaders, elected officials and community members joined Thursday morning to celebrate the major renovations to the campus hub amid bouquets of bright green and gold Mylar balloons.

The Rockingham Community College Foundation provided $750,000 toward the overhaul of the 1971 structure’s interior, while N.C. Connect Bonds covered the remaining $650,000. The Kenneth Hanes Estate funded the purchase of updated furnishings for the two-story facility that serves roughly 1,800 students.

“I can tell you that this college is fortunate to have a foundation that contributes significantly to the college,’’ said RCC’s President Mark O. Kinlaw, noting the group’s logo placed prominently on the upstairs lobby wall.

“Our vision was to create a more contemporary environment for our students,’’ Kinlaw said of the facility that houses RCC departments and services including: admissions, records, financial aid, advising and counseling, book store, campus security, cafeteria, student lounge, game room, student government office, study lounge, and an activity room.

College leaders wanted to create “a cool place to hang out and a building that could provide better services … Most of all we wanted to do something our students were proud of, a place where they could just be students and enjoy,’’ said Kinlaw, president since 2014.

“So we wanted it to be more bold and colorful than any of our other buildings,’’ Kinlaw said, joking about his initial hesitance over the designer’s bright citrus color palette.

The bold redo, led by Raleigh’s Boomerang Design, was well-received, though.

Walls of the first-floor lobby are dotted with confetti-like squares in shades of green, gold, orange and gray. Handsome banners featuring students in cap and gown stand near modern furnishings in complementary colors.

Bright lighting and marble topped surfaces make for an inviting welcome desk and the reappointed student book store boasts handsome displays of apparel and eye-catching RCC Eagle-themed merchandise near the new check-out counter.

Carpeting throughout the transformed student center drives home the color theme with a gray, green and white abstract weave upstairs, and deeper hues of blues and greens for downstairs.

A tangerine modular sofa system and big-screen TV create an inviting den for co-eds. And between classes Thursday morning, students were volleying ping pong balls and banking pool balls at a billiard table in the renovated game areas.

“The bottom line is that we can now provide better services to students, we can provide a better meeting place for the community, but most importantly, we have a place I think students will enjoy,’’ Kinlaw said.

“We are already seeing them hanging out playing ping pong, playing pool, watching TV, and yes, they’re studying, too, and just chilling out.’’

Renovations made RCC Foundation’s President Jeff Parris “giddy,’’ he said to a packed crowd. “... We have a tendency to be a bit regional,’’ Parris said of Rockingham Countians’ pride in their towns.

“However, if there’s an entity in our county that ties all those distinct areas together, it’s right here at RCC,’’ Parris said. “If there’s a place that everyone can relate to and say this is my hometown, it starts right here with RCC. If there’s a place on campus we want the students and everyone to call home, that place would be … right here.’’

The foundation is proud to have supplied money for capital upgrades to a campus that had fallen behind, said Fletcher Waynick of Reidsville, the foundation’s immediate past president.

“I traveled to a lot community colleges … and I saw buildings going up and improvements being made, and I didn’t see that happening here,” Waynick said.

“We tried to fund this project as much as we could up front, so it would happen fast and so the cost wouldn’t increase while we were trying to raise the money … Now that the quarter-cent sales tax is in place, we’ll return to our efforts to our core mission of providing support to students,’’ Waynick said, explaining no scholarship money from the foundation was used for the renovation and is restricted for student use only.

Rockingham County voters approved the quarter-cent sales tax in a May 2018 Primary Election to benefit RCC, and Kinlaw has said the college will invest such funds in workforce training, technology upgrades and renovations in the coming years.

Retailers began collecting the additional tax in October. The state disperses the tax funds to the county monthly, and the county in turn channels the money to RCC, according to Lance Metzler, county manager. Officials project the tax will generate $1.8 million in the first year and increase by 2 percent in subsequent fiscal years.

“The foundation is where the community meets the college,’’ Waynick said. “Old buildings have their place, but without updating, they become relics of the past. And the last thing you want at a 21st century community college is an example of how it used to be … Students are interested in their future and their family’s future. And in this world of rapid change, it’s a struggle to keep up. Capital improvements like this were once off limits for the RCC Foundation, but we all saw the need … we stepped in and filled the gap.’’

Student Government Association President Bryson Goins was settling into his new office Thursday. The foundation’s “generosity is amazing,’’ Goins said to the group of celebrants, which included former RCC President Robert C. Keys. “Thanks to students who use this building every day … their presence is appreciated and they’re the lifeline of this great college.”

The gift from the foundation for the student center was settled well before a recent conflict between the college and the foundation.

For at least 10 years, RCC received $39 million in federal aid — erroneously using a financial code belonging to its affiliated non-profit RCC Foundation.

A recent audit investigation showed the college had used the wrong number since at least 1995.

The five-year review by the Office of the State Auditor cleared RCC of financial wrongdoing in its placement of $17 million of education-related funds since 2014. Even so, foundation leaders had more questions about the unexamined balance of $22 million the college dispersed in the years prior and requested an independent look at a decade of books.

For those answers, the foundation seeks an independent look at 10 years of books.

“Imagine if you found out that a neighbor of yours had been using your Social Security Number,” wrote Parris in a May letter to supporters. “Even if he’d been using it purely by mistake, you’d want to know exactly what he was using it for, even if you weren’t missing a dime from your banking account. That’s where the foundation is.”

State Auditor Beth Wood presented the findings of its March investigative review to college and RCC Foundation officials on June 19, after the office determined the college had used the foundation’s identifying information “including, at minimum, the Foundation’s entity name and D-U-N-S number.”

A D-U-N-S number is a nine-digit code issued by financial registry Dun & Bradstreet used to create a business credit file.

A complaint to the state by an unnamed source, alleging RCC had improperly used the foundation’s identifying information to secure grants and direct payments, triggered the investigation, documents show.

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Joe Dexter contributed to this report.

Susie C. Spear is a staff writer for RockinghamNow. She can be reached at 743-333-4101 and on Twitter @SusieSpear_RCN.

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