Approach Normandale Community College from the south and it's the same old college, surrounded by parking lots. But travel along the west side and -- suddenly -- a new look.

A parking ramp, a pretty atrium and, as of this semester, a new Partnership Center.

On Wednesday, workers were welding the final cables of an art installation and setting up chairs in classrooms, readying the center for its Thursday grand opening.

It's the final piece of the Bloomington college's recent three-part building boom meant to add another major entrance to campus, ease space constraints and house partnerships with universities.

First came the Kopp Student Center. Then the campus had its first multi-story parking ramp open last fall. "The parking problem, after 40 years, has been mostly solved," said Joe Opatz, the college's president.

The $23 million Partnership Center adds 76,000 square feet of classrooms, labs, offices and gathering spaces. That's enough room to accommodate 2,880 more students. (Last fall's enrollment was 9,901.)

"We were very, very short on classrooms, faculty office space and common areas," Opatz said. "This meets that goal."

Much of the space is lighted by sun pouring through gigantic windows. Offices overlook outside greenery. Labs look state of the art. The center connects with Kopp in a kind of loop, where students were chatting, studying and hanging out.

"Students love it," Opatz said. "I overheard someone say, 'Oh, it's like a real college now.'"

In more ways than one. The Partnership Center will host more bachelor's and master's degree programs via Minnesota State University, Mankato and the other four-year schools of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, of which Normandale is a part.

Opatz says he expects that alignment will help the college attract students who intend to finish four-year degrees.

"They'll know they can start here and stay here," he said.

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168 Twitter: @ByJenna