A $4.5 million renovation is helping SigEp’s University of Florida Chapter become a nationally recognized leader in the Greek world. The new home was designed to support every aspect of a student’s development, and alumni are already seeing the investment pay off.
Florida Alpha’s chapter home was originally built in 1955, and a large east wing was added in 1985. During the facility’s renovation, which was completed in August 2017, most everything except the zip code was changed. Still, alumni were excited to see some of their favorite elements of the home preserved.
“We were able to keep some of the loved look of the past and update the house to support the needs of the younger generation,” said chapter volunteer Steve Shewbrooks, Florida ’66.
A core focus of the renovation was increasing the amount of space dedicated to residential learning. Named in memory of Florida brother Jim Lang, ’61, a new academic center in the home occupies parts of the first and second floors. The Lang Center is one of the most popular spaces in the house and features a suite for a live-in resident scholar, a faculty office, two classrooms and a library.
“Parents have been very receptive to the house and its generous offering of study spaces,” said Chapter President Graham Boone, ’20. “On a daily basis, brothers are using the two classrooms for serious study. We like to think the learning center concept contributes to the chapter’s 3.5 GPA, the highest on campus among fraternities.”
The chapter’s first faculty fellow, Ernesto Escoto, holds office hours every Friday at the house, and the chapter is working with him to plan a course he can teach on site. The brothers would like to see Escoto, director of the university’s Counseling and Wellness Center, lead a class focused on mental health and other issues that impact students like substance abuse and sexual assault.
The 17,401-square-foot property was designed to support a chapter of more than 100 brothers. In addition to the resident scholar suite, the renovated house has beds for 44 students and a guest room for visiting Fraternity staff or volunteers. Brothers who don’t live in the home have access to lockers in the facility’s new exercise room, making it easier for them to utilize the space.
Brothers share two daily meals in a 100-seat dining room where floor-to-ceiling windows open onto a terrace with overflow seating for another 40. This area of the house is bustling throughout the day as members drop in between classes to enjoy meals prepared in a state-of-the-art kitchen.
An enclosed courtyard and new living room are two other popular spots for brothers and guests looking to relax, play games, or root on the Florida Gators during away games. Two new women’s restrooms and wheelchair access have made the space more welcoming to friends and the university community.
“We have hosted several guest speakers in our dining hall and in the large classroom, and we have a mini church event several times throughout the month led by one of our brothers,” Boone reported. “Events like these allow us to host members of our community and show that our Fraternity house can be an asset to the university and the surrounding area.”
Most recently, the chapter hosted University of Florida President Kent Fuchs at a dinner in his honor. Fuchs has publicly recognized SigEp for its innovative programming and leadership among fraternities.
The long road to a new home
On Oct. 14, 2017, more than 100 Florida alumni, undergraduates and guests gathered to celebrate the official grand opening of the newly renovated house. The event was the finish line for a long and, at times, arduous journey that began in 2009. The renovation would not have been possible without significant financial contributions from alumni and countless hours of volunteer time — way more time than Bert Harris, ’74, could have ever anticipated, he said.
As president of the chapter’s educational foundation, Harris helped spearhead fundraising efforts. He and fellow alumni-volunteers managed to raise $2.8 million from 285 donors, including one brother, Mike Watford, ’75, who contributed $1.4 million of the total.
Florida Alpha alumni first began discussing the renovation in 2009. Chapter volunteers partnered with fundraising consulting firm Pennington & Company to strengthen their alumni communication and annual fundraising efforts. By 2010, a feasibility study suggested that alumni were eager to support a project, and so Florida volunteers began the hard work of raising nearly $3 million.
Their efforts were complicated when cultural issues began to plague the chapter, leading to a temporary closure at the end of 2012. However, Harris was serving as Grand President at the time and helped alumni turn a difficult situation into a galvanizing one. He provided perspective about what a fresh start could mean for Florida Alpha, and fundraising efforts continued as alumni became excited about a chapter that would be supported by both the Balanced Man Program and a state-of-the-art learning community.
With the help of SigEp’s professional staff, the chapter recruited its first new members in the spring of 2016. And after years of planning, countless meetings and hundreds of fundraising phone calls, the renovation began in November 2016. Ten months later, the project was completed just in time for students to move in for the fall 2017 semester.
“It was nothing short of a project management miracle that the renovation was completed on schedule in spite of the many problems encountered during the project,” said Shewbrooks.
That miracle wouldn’t have been possible without Brett Ogilvie, ’86. Ogilvie, a senior technology consultant in Orlando, volunteered his time as project manager for the renovation. Under his guidance, alumni spent months meeting with their architect, brainstorming ideas, visiting other fraternity houses, and researching options for every aspect of the project.
On-site construction support was provided by Michael Lewis, ’74, and volunteers met weekly with the project’s architect and contractor throughout the renovation. Once the team began stripping the home down to its studs, they encountered unforeseen construction issues, including asbestos in old building materials and underlying mechanical problems that proved costly. Luckily, the group had a contingency plan and was able to move forward by prioritizing certain projects. However, the added costs would have brought the renovation to a halt were it not for an additional major gift from Watford.
With renovations complete, alumni are now channeling their fundraising energy toward scholarships that will support the chapter’s continued growth. Harris and Alumni and Volunteer Corporation President Bryson Ridgway, ’05, reminded alumni of the importance of continued fundraising in a recent newsletter. They believe donors have good reason to be bullish about investing in the chapter.
“At a time when the Greek system has been under fire, we think it is good for us to remember that our new Florida Alpha is different,” Ridgway recently told fellow volunteers. “The young men of our new chapter have done very well holding each other accountable, lifting each other up to be more successful, and making their brotherhood strong.”