Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University President John Johnson’s been cleared for takeoff, with his official retirement less than a month away. But the university’s Daytona Beach campus, which grew dramatically under his leadership, will keep moving ahead with projects he helped plan and execute — including a massive new student center that promises to be an architectural show-stopper. That’s a boon to Embry-Riddle students, and the community as a whole.

ERAU could have simply rested on its laurels as the world’s top aviation university. But it has reached for the stars — literally — adding more degree programs in aerospace along with expanded programs in business, robotics, intelligence and security, engineering and computing among others. Recently, it added degree programs in commercial space exploration and unmanned aircraft. The university has piled up too many accolades to count, including recognition by U.S. News and World Report as the best college in the South for veterans, and the fifth-best in the nation for its online bachelor’s program. (Nobody questions the school’s ranking as the nation’s No. 1 aerospace engineering program, a laurel it’s held for 15 years.)

That record of excellence will continue to be reflected in ERAU’s physical campus. The Daytona Beach campus already boasts state-of-the-art research facilities, including a space physics research lab and the Laboratory for Exosphere and Near-Space Environment Studies. This summer, ERAU plans to demolish its Jack Hunt library and begin the work of replacing it with a new 177,000-square-foot student center that will incorporate a w library, auditorium, dining area and other services. Like the Jim W. Henderson Administration and Welcome Center nearby, the new building was designed to evoke the university’s mission, with lines inspired by a bird in flight.

The university also plans to construct a new residence hall with room for 1,250 students; the space will be much-needed with ERAU’s rapid student-body growth. As of Fall 2014, the Daytona Beach campus had more than 5,500 undergraduate and graduate students, its highest enrollment ever. ERAU’s high-achieving students are constantly making news — whether it’s developing an artificial asteroid to explore space mining, or taking the men’s baseball team to the NAIA World Series as it did last month.

Volusia County is home to several institutions of higher learning, each a standout in its category. And as each grows, local residents reap benefits. Specialized programs attract high-tech employers. Local public schools form partnerships that give middle- and high-school students access to advanced learning. The entire community gains intellectual, cultural and economic diversity. And the mere presence of a school like ERAU, with a wide array of faculty members who are often quoted in national media, shines a different light on a community mostly known for its beaches, bikers and race cars.

As the new buildings take shape, they should serve as a reminder of the long and beneficial relationship between ERAU and the greater Daytona Beach area — and the expectation that in the future, both the university and its community will soar even higher.

The Daytona Beach News-Journal