Century College is the largest two-year institution in the state, but oddly enough, the 44-year-old school never had a dedicated student center with offices for campus organizations or a place to simply hang out.

It does now.

Workers last week put the finishing touches on the 25,000-square-foot center, and students wasted no time moving into the cheery space, stepping around piles of sawdust and building supplies while carrying boxes to offices dedicated to the school newspaper, the Student Senate and a multicultural center. There also is a coffee shop, bookstore, performance stage and a room with six TVs, video games and couches.

"This will definitely make people feel welcome," said Ericka Vang, a Student Senate member in her second year at the college, which straddles Century Avenue with campuses in both White Bear Lake and Mahtomedi. "I'm sad because I'm about to leave and something good like this comes up."

A grand opening will be held in April, bringing an official end to a $9 million renovation project that included improvements to all three floors of the West Campus building and took nearly two years to complete.

It all started in 2009, when the library on the first and second floor was relocated to the new science center across the street on the East Campus. Computer labs moved to the third floor. Admissions, records and financial aid offices landed on the second floor. That left space on the ground floor for the new student center.

During construction, hallways were sometimes closed and students and faculty had to go outside or up or down a floor to get from one part of the building to the other.

"This has been a long time coming," said Mike Brunner, vice president of Student Services and College Facilities. "This is a big deal. Now students won't have to leave between classes."

With ample tables and chairs in the new center, students should not have to sprawl out on corridor floors to study, a frequent sight this year as the college has had little free space and a near-record enrollment of 15,202. Students won't have to go to their vehicles to take a nap or chill out. They will have access to more computer stations, and they won't have to scramble to find meeting space.

In the past, student Katie Ronsberg said the 20 to 30 members of the Planning Activities Committee often had to crowd into any available space for weekly meetings. Now, with its own office, the organization responsible for seasonal campus-wide activities such as welcome week has plenty of room.

"It will be more convenient," the co-chair of the organization said. And with other organizations nearby, "We'll all be around each other, and that will be helpful."

The facelift likely will not be the last major construction project at Century College, which opened in 1967 and was known as Lakewood Community College. Down the road, the school is looking to build another six classrooms to help relieve overcrowding, and next year it plans to ask the Legislature to include money in a bonding bill to build 28 more classrooms.

But for now, school officials plan to let the construction dust settle for a while.

"This is an exciting space to walk around in," said Brunner. "This might be the nicest-looking space in the MnSCU [Minnesota State Colleges and University] system."

Tim Harlow • 651-735-1824