On a warm spring day, students at Lindenwood University-Belleville took time from studying for finals to play Frisbee in the sunken garden in front of the college at 2600 W. Main St.
The parking lot was full of cars as students buzzed between buildings and to and from former single-family homes and apartment buildings surrounding the school that have been turned into student housing.
Across West Main Street, demolition crews tore down the former Westview Baptist Church the school recently bought in order to make room for additional parking.
Across South 23rd Street, the Illinois State Police Crime lab, which will help train Lindenwood students for careers in forensic science and police work as they learn shoulder to shoulder with current scientists and investigators, and a new dormitory are under construction.
And at 2 p.m. Sunday, the Lindenwood-Belleville campus will host its first graduation ceremony with about 500 people set to receive their diplomas.
The commencement speaker is U.S. Rep. Bill Enyart, D-Belleville.
It's a far cry from the cold, winter day a decade ago when a group of Lindenwood trustees arrived by bus to tour the soon to be abandoned campus of what was once Belleville Township High School, later known as Belleville West.
At the time, Lindenwood was considering both the Belleville site and the former Parks College campus in Cahokia for a new satellite college where it could establish an Illinois presence.
Residents complained to the Belleville City Council a decade ago that the high school campus would become blighted when students and teachers moved to a new campus under construction on farm fields along Frank Scott Parkway West. Their home values would plummet and crime would go up if a productive use for the property wasn't found, they said.
"It would have been horrible to have that high school campus sit there, empty," Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert said. "Potentially, that could have become a very blighted area. Fortunately, just the opposite happened."
Lindenwood, led then by school President Dennis Spellman, purchased the old Belleville Township High School site for what some thought was a laughable price of $1 in a deal brokered by Belleville leaders.
Eckert, who was an alderman at the time, said he keenly remembers the heat residents directed at him and former Mayor Mark Kern.
But no one is laughing any longer as the school currently has 100 full-time staff members, offers more than 30 degree programs for undergraduates and graduate students and more than 1,200 students including about 800 full-time day students.
While he never had doubts that the Belleville campus would become a success, university President James Evans said he's delighted with how things have come together in such a short time.
"I couldn't be happier with where they are presently," Evans said of the Belleville campus. "When we started this up very late in 2003, we knew the potential was there for a full service college. But there were no assurances. It would take a lot of refurbishment of the great campus over there. We had to see if we could get a good evening college there to sustain the physical plant."
While it got the campus for a song as part of an inducement package to convince Lindenwood to set up shop in Belleville, the university immediately started massive renovations and upgrades which are still underway today. The price tag: $23 million and counting.
Included in the work was equipping classrooms -- some of which were built nearly a century ago -- for computer technology, rehabbing the Ittner designed campus auditorium and later constructing a welcome center on its east side. The former high school cafeteria was reinvented as a student center, the high school boys gym was turned into the Lynx Arena complete with tremendously upgraded locker room facilities and the reconstruction of the former Township Stadium stands and football field.
Windows all over campus have been replaced and brick buildings were tuck pointed. Grassy areas and landscapes returned the campus to its look of the 1920s and 1930s.
The spending was a leap of faith, Evans said.
"There were several years in which we had second thoughts about the day college," Evans said. "We knew there was opposition from other institutions and didn't know if there was demand for another day school in the Belleville area. I would say, in due of all those considerations, I am very pleasantly impressed with our Belleville campus."
After the university failed at a couple of attempts to kick off day classes, Lindenwood hired former Fontbonne University executive Jerry Bladdick four years ago to take the school to the next level.
"I was sitting at my desk and I got a call from (Lindenwood Vice President of Human Resources) Dr. (Rich) Boyle," Bladdick said. "He told me he'd like me to come have a cup of coffee with him and President Evans. I agreed to do so, and they told me what they wanted chapter two of Lindenwood-Belleville to look like."
While he wasn't looking for a new job, Bladdick said the offer was to become chief operating officer of the Belleville campus and a vice president was too good to pass up.
"I just fell in love when they told me the vision for Belleville," Bladdick said. "Who gets this kind of chance?"
Bladdick accomplished the task he was assigned. He got daytime classes off the ground in 2009 and has rapidly grown the student population largely because of the addition of 22 sports programs and extracurricular activities including basketball, football, baseball, volleyball, soccer and tennis.
Todd Starks, a senior who will graduate Sunday with a degree in corporate communications, was among the first freshmen and sophomores to take day classes at Lindenwood-Belleville. And he was a member of the school's first men's basketball squad.
A transfer from Idaho State in NCAA Division I, Starks was looking for a place he could play immediately as well as one that was closer to his mother's home in St. Louis. He wasn't so sure when he arrived that he was going to stay. After a year away from Idaho State, he could have gone back to a Division I school to play.
"I had a plan to wait and see where it goes," Starks said. "But everyone was so supportive here I didn't want to walk away."
Starks, 22, said he plans to try to play basketball in the professional ranks. But, if that doesn't work, he plans to pursue his master's degree at the Belleville university.
Junior Michael Glover, a psychology major from St. Louis, was also attracted to the Belleville campus because of its sports programs.
He played as a center on Lindenwood-Belleville's first football team in 2012.
"It's exciting to be a part of a new program, hopefully laying the foundation for years to come," Glover said. "I also like the small school aspect. It's nice to go to school in a place where the professors know who you are. Everyone knows your first name and wants you to succeed."
Enyart said he's as thrilled as the students to be a part of a Lindenwood-Belleville first graduation ceremony.
"This is first ever commencement for the campus, and for me it's a great honor to give the first commencement address," Enyart said. "I hope to give a message that resonates with the vitality of southwestern Illinois and the vitality that the Lindenwood campus has brought on Belleville and the surrounding community."
Eckert said he's thrilled to see the jobs and opportunities Lindenwood continues to bring to Belleville.
"What they have done for this community is unbelievable," Eckert said. "We could not be any happier with the progress that Lindenwood has made."
While the school has grown beyond what some people expected, Evans and Bladdick think there is plenty of room for more over the next decade. But they said it will always be their goal to keep Lindenwood-Belleville small compared to other four-year institutions across the country.
Bladdick said he could see a school roughly twice the size of the current Belleville operation in the next decade with about 3,000 students in attendance and about 300 staff members. But that would be the limit.
"We want the Belleville campus to remain a high quality liberal arts school that provides a high quality education and excellent preparation for career," Evans said. "There is an important place in our society for a small liberal arts college that is very personable in nature."
While Evans said he doesn't expect the university's footprint to grow much more than its current size, more renovation and construction is in the works.
"Our ultimate goal is to be a university for everyone," Bladdick said. "It's like were making a sculpture. You have a vision when you start out. But you're not sure exactly what it's going to look like until it's finished."
Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at firstname.lastname@example.org or 618-239-2626.
Lindenwood University-Belleville timeline
* February 2003 -- The Lindenwood University Board of Directors votes in favor of a tentative deal to purchase the former Belleville Township High School site at 2600 W. Main St. in Belleville for $1.
* May 2003 -- Lindenwood President Dennis Spellmann signs a development agreement with the city of Belleville and the school starts to formally take control of the former high school campus. Spellman said he thinks the school will be "a real gem if it's fixed up right."
* November 2004 -- After starting off classes in Belleville with night continuing education programs for teachers and law enforcement officers, the school announces it has quadrupled its enrollment over the course of a year. About 600 people took classes at the Belleville campus in 2003. A total of 2,218 attended in 2004.
* January 2005 -- Lindenwood leaders notify property owners near the school that they are interested in purchasing their homes as potential future student housing.
* August 2006 -- Lindenwood University President Dennis Spellman, the original champion of the Belleville campus, dies. He is succeeded by James Evans, who reinforces the school's commitment to Belleville.
* September 2006 -- Property at the corner of West Main and South 23rd streets is purchased by Lindenwood, formally starting the process of relocating the Illinois State Police crime lab in Fairview Heights to Belleville.
* June 2008 -- Lindenwood announces plans to do a $1 million renovation of two-story brick classroom building and to build a 125-space parking lot to help accommodate the influx of new students.
* June 2009 -- Jerry Bladdick is hired as chief operating officer at Lindenwood-Belleville. Daytime classes begin.
* Today -- Lindenwood-Belleville hosts its first graduation ceremony on the Belleville campus. More than 500 students will get their diplomas.