Mará Rose Williams | Avila making itself a bigger spot on the map

The inviting smell of baking bread wafts across the Avila University campus, where one of several new features — all designed to heighten the school’s visibility and attract more students — is a Subway restaurant.

For nearly 50 years, the campus has been quietly nestled in the south Kansas City’s Red Bridge neighborhood, but last year a stone sign went up to announce the school’s presence. The sign and the Subway serve as lures to the public.

“People may drive by us and they know we are in the community and now they know that we are also of the community,” said university President Ron Slepitza. “It (the sign) is also a message back to the community that we are open and engaged with the community.”

School officials have designated 2012 the year the Catholic university makes its mark in the community where it has been located since 1965, when the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet opened its doors on Wornall Road.

In the decade since Avila College became Avila University in 2001, the school has been adding athletic programs and facilities, renovating existing space to make it more modern and constructing residential halls to accommodate a growing student population. More than 1,800 students were enrolled in the fall.

In the last two years, $13.5 million has been spent on renovations and new construction.

“We are doing more this year and next year on this campus than has been done in the last 50 years,” Slepitza said. “What we are doing is trying to put Avila on the map in a way that it hasn’t been before.”

Consider that until this year Avila’s athletic fields were in no shape to be host for competitions, so football games and soccer matches had to be played at rental facilities off campus. But the campus has seen so much growth, including new turf and bleachers and hillside seating, that for the first time in the school’s history it could hold all of its homecoming events on campus.

And when the fields are not occupied by university teams, they are used by high schools, community leagues and neighborhood runners and walkers, said Bob Luder, university spokesman. Mabee Fieldhouse was renovated and expanded with an addition called the Pavilion that has a second full-size court.

University administrators are especially proud of Thompson Hall, a dorm with four-bedroom suites.

Up the hill from Thompson, and inside the student center, is the new dining hall. The old cafeteria-style dining space was gutted and redesigned into a purple and gold lounge/eatery/computer cafe.

The renovations have transformed the dining hall. “After dining hours it becomes a central gathering place for students to meet and study,” Luder said.

If you hang around the campus, “you see more people walking dogs and sitting out by the fountains here,” he said. “People say, ‘This is our campus.’ ”